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Private enterprise needed in space: NASA

And 2006's $17bn space budget is approved

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

NASA has said commercial investment will prove vital to its future efforts in space exploration. Ex-staffers backed the sentiment, saying NASA has too much on its plate to go it alone.

The agency needs to fill a funding black hole of between £3bn and $5bn. It has already cannibalised the research budget of the International Space Station so that its construction can be completed. It also needs to find cash for maintaining missions already in progress, as well as putting man back on the moon and forming a decent plan to get to Mars.

The agency's chief administrator Michael Griffin told the American Astronautics Society that private investment in space could be the "dawn of the true space age", Space.com reports.

He called on American industry to get involved in developing commercial cargo and crew ships, as well as putting private fuelling stations in low Earth orbit to help with the bid to get manned missions back to the Moon and to Mars.

"We want to be able to buy these services from American industry. It will not be government business as usual," he said.

He said that the first proposals from the private sector on space station resupply efforts were expected this year.

Former NASA chief of staff Courtney Stadd said that the agency should not confine itself to working with US partners, but should look to international contractors and partnerships as well. He noted: "Any misstep in human spaceflight could spell a very long hiatus in human-driven exploration in the US."

In related news, the House and the Senate have just approved NASA's 2006 spending plan, granting the agency $16.5bn - 0.7 percent of the federal budget - for the next fiscal year.

Griffin said: "[The budget] will enable continued space shuttle operations and International Space Station assembly; initiate development of the next generation Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle; and support key science and aeronautics programs vital to our nation." ®

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