Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Australian astronaut says Ares test 'could help put tourists on the Moon by 2020'

Carly Crawford

The test launch of Ares I-X, now expected to take place Wednesday morning, will deliver NASA vital technical information that could help set up a manned space station on the moon within a decade. Australian astronaut Andy Thomas says the groundbreaking booster test could help put tourists on the moon by 2020.

Thomas, 58, said moves towards commercial funding for NASA could mean tourists would have the chance to experience space soon after professional astronauts arrived on the moon.

"Once we have that kind of commercial activity, it's inevitable that we'll see space tourism," he said.

He said existing space tourism – such as the kind promoted by Virgin boss Richard Branson – was not true space exploration.

"What he's doing is really high altitude aircraft," Adelaide-born Thomas said.

A high-level US government review of NASA's human space program last week suggested using private money to send astronauts into space.

"It is very much in the interest of the US to commercialize access to low Earth orbit," he said.

Thomas was aware of a select few entrepreneurs and financing firms that had flagged their interest in sponsoring space programs with the US government.

If skies clear at Cape Canaveral the $382 million Ares I-X will blast off on a two-and-a-half-minute flight designed to test a new five-segment Solid Rocket Booster and a controversial configuration hopefully settling disputes about possible crew-threatening thrust oscillation.

A presidential panel last week supported the Ares I-X test flight, but questioned the need to use the Ares I rocket, part of the Constellation program. The panel questioned the cost and design of the craft as well as its necessity.

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