MIAMI -- When the space shuttle Atlantis launched July 1, it had one primary mission: Resupply the International Space Station. And now that it has returned to Earth, another spaceship is ready to take on that mission -- for a profit.
A California company has both a rocket and a $1.6 billion NASA contract that could have it supplying the ISS by the end of the year. Within the next six months, ace Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, plans to make its first test dock with the orbiting lab and deliver supplies, a major step in NASA's strategy to remain in space without a spaceship of its own.
"We see Dragon and Falcon 9 as inheriting the Shuttle's legacy," SpaceX spokesman Bobby Block said of the company's capsule and rocket, both built using nearly $300 million in NASA seed money.
The shift from NASA-owned ships to essentially rented vessels has sparked a wave of worry over the future of space travel in general. Perhaps nowhere is the anxiety more pronounced than in Brevard County, the heart of Florida's fabled Space Coast.
Through attrition, layoffs and canceled contracts in a process that began in 2008, the retirement of the shuttle program is expected to cost the region $2.8 billion in economic activity, and about 13,000 jobs. United Space Alliance, a consortium of private contractors responsible for many of the shuttle operations, told Florida regulators they plan to eliminate more than 1,900 jobs within the next six weeks alone.
NASA promises the private-sector space flights will be a temporary break in the agency's pursuit of cosmic destinations.
A fledgling NASA program would build a new ship capable of returning to the moon or landing on an asteroid. Both are seen as potential midway points for a manned mission to Mars. That kind of undertaking would likely bring the Space Coast its third big windfall, following the heydays of the Apollo and shuttle programs.
Until then, though, a certain amount of hope rests on spaceships for hire.
"That's our opportunity to create more opportunity for jobs post-shuttle, where in the Apollo days we didn't have that chance," said Lynda Weatherman, head of the Economic Development Commission for Florida's Space Coast. She was referring to the lean years at the Kennedy Space Center, as the United States ended its Moon missions on Apollo rockets while gearing up for the shuttle trips to Earth's orbit.
"There is work to be done," she said. "The space station is there."
Space "tourism" gets much of the attention when it comes to private spaceflight. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic has already collected $57 million in deposits for flights 60 miles into the sky, high enough to both experience weightlessness and see the Earth's curvature, a spokeswoman said. The spacecraft is going through tests before it can make an inaugural flight; tickets cost $200,000.
But replacing the shuttle has prompted a more high-stakes space race as companies compete to snag lucrative delivery contracts -- both cargo and crew. Until private firms are cleared for human space travel, NASA plans to pay Russia to bring astronauts to the space station. The cost should be about $65 million per seat. SpaceX is testing a vessel it says can do the job for about $20 million per passenger.
Even the space program's biggest supporters concede private companies can probably put payloads and astronauts into orbit faster and cheaper than NASA can. Space flight has gotten routine enough that the margins are squeezable.
"It's really not rocket science anymore," said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at Kennedy Space Center, a research center run by the University of Central Florida. "It's still dangerous. It's important. It's not cheap. But we've been doing it for 50 years. The Russians have been doing it longer. The Chinese can do it. The Indians will be doing it in two years."
SpaceX is run by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal, the leading processor of online transactions. Among its competitors for NASA contracts for human spaceflight: Blue Origin LLC, a company based in Washington State and backed by Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com Inc. NASA awarded Blue Origin about $25 million in seed money to help develop a spaceship for the post-shuttle era.
Two other companies are in the running to take over the shuttle's delivery route to the ISS: Sierra Nevada Corp., of Sparks, Nev., and Boeing Co., long one of NASA's primary contractors.
"The space shuttle had its job. It was like a big moving truck," said Sierra Nevada Chairman Mark Sirangelo, referring to the shuttle's central role in assembling the ISS. "Now you've moved into your house. You just want an SUV to get you around town."
While workers at the Kennedy Space Center prepared Atlantis for the final journey to the ISS, heavy equipment operating just outside the gates were beginning to clear the way for the spaceport's commercial future. Veiled in clouds of dust, bulldozers and dump trucks spread fill along a spur road called Space Commerce Parkway, laying the foundation for what NASA is calling Exploration Park.
"I assure you," said Jim Ball, the NASA executive charged with leasing Exploration Park, "there will be life at Kennedy Space Center after the shuttle retires."
But will there be wanderlust? That's the question looming over NASA's move toward private spacecraft. By relying on companies like SpaceX to get astronauts into orbit, critics say, NASA risks losing the talent required to land a human on Mars. Even worse: What if China gets there first?
"There aren't too many people in the country who can do these sort of things," said George Cecala, news secretary to U.S. Rep. Bill Posey, a Republican from Brevard who worked as a NASA contractor in the early 1970s but was laid off when NASA ended the Apollo program.
Under pressure from lawmakers in Florida and other states with large space industries, NASA is pursuing a vehicle that would let it bring astronauts to the space station in the event a private contractor can't. Known as Orion, the "multi-purpose" vehicle's main function would be to transport astronauts beyond Earth's orbit for the kind of budget-busting missions that defined America's space program since the 1960s.
"There is no money in space exploration," said Ritch Workman, a state representative from Melbourne and chair of the Florida Space Caucus. "There is no money for SpaceX to say, 'You know what, let's go check out the moon.' "
But advocates of NASA's commercial contracts see the agency fueling a new wave of entrepreneurship in space. Bigelow Aerospace, owned by the founder of the Budget Suites hotel chain, is counting on a private craft to haul customers to a space station it is already trying to lease.
"We will provide a comprehensive turn-key experience including our clients' transportation and on-orbit needs," reads Bigelow's website. "Whether you are a sovereign nation developing an astronaut program, a corporation interested in microgravity research, or an individual with a desire to experience space, we can help you achieve your goals."
Spacecraft companies think they can leverage NASA dollars into a larger portfolio of private clients, from satellite operators to zero-gravity vacation homes.
"NASA is like the anchor tenant at the mall," said Sirangelo, chairman of Sierra Nevada. "They're the (Nieman Marcus) that comes in and sign the big lease, and you can build the mall around them."