As he prepares his 2010 state of the state and FY 2011 budget messages, President Obama is widely said to be leaning toward outsourcing to commercial firms some of NASA’s mid-term launch operations (such as resupply of the International Space Station, or even other exploratory ventures).
For intelligent discussion of the options the President has been exploring since late 2009, see the report of the Augustine Commission (formally known as the Review of Human Spaceflight Plans Committee). While not as cheap as the “base case” in-house programs, commercial operations stand a better chance of actually achieving interesting goals and inspiring ordinary Americans, so look for them in these documents, I’d say. I’ll update this post when we know if I’m right. UPDATE (1/24/10): WSJ says it’s going to happen.
A decision to go commercial would mean canceling or scaling back dramatically in-house development programs like the Ares I rocket, and that’s bad news for states that host associated NASA Centers or NASA’s prime contractors that tend to hang their hats nearby. UPDATE 2 (2/1/10): Yep, it’s official. From NASA budget press conference: Ares canceled. Still pretty modest expenditures on commercial launches but realistically now there’s no alternative for low earth orbit.
However, it could be good news for those states where the new generation of new and nimble commercial operators intend to exploit the “airmail” or “internet” models under which government contracts build an entirely new technology-based industry aimed at commercial customers.