Space entrepreneur Burt Rutan, whose company Scaled Composites sent the first private astronauts into space last year, opened the International Space Development Conference with a blistering critique of NASA.

He said the agency is wasting taxpayers’ money on a deeply flawed space shuttle and paper spaceships that never get beyond the planning stage.

According to Rutan, NASA should get out of the human spaceflight business and leave the flying to the emerging commercial spaceflight industry.

Rutan outlined his plan to fly tens of thousands of paying passengers into suborbital space within 12 years, and follow that up with commercial flights to Earth orbit and beyond. “I want to go to the moon in my lifetime,” he said. “That’s my personal goal.”

Rutan thus set the tone for four days of schmoozing — but mostly scheming and arguing — among space entrepreneurs, NASA officials and aerospace executives gathered to hash out the future of commercial space flight.

Organizers of the four-day conference tried to unify these disparate groups under the banner “Your ticket to space,” but discord was the dominant theme. Attendees, representing the major players in government and commercial spaceflight, could agree only on their mission to send people into space. After that, the gloves were off.

At stake is whether ordinary citizens will have a role to play on the high frontier.

With NASA’s aging space shuttles grounded for the last two years because of safety concerns, and no replacement in sight, space startups have stepped in to fill the void. They have challenged the government order dominating human spaceflight since Russian Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin rocketed to orbit in 1961.

Part of the old order is NASA awarding open-ended contracts to big aerospace firms (the “primes”) like Lockheed Martin. The manager of Lockheed’s newly formed Space Exploration group, John Karas, capped the conference’s opening day with a dinner presentation.

Attendees naturally expected Karas to illuminate the basic concept behind Lockheed Martin’s bid to build a space shuttle replacement. Instead, Karas delivered a presentation called the “Evolution of Discovery” that seemed calculated to convey as little information as possible. When asked by an audience member to address Lockheed Martin’s plans for human spaceflight, he replied with a flat “no.”

With Lockheed Martin remaining silent regarding its shuttle plans, a space startup called Transformational Space stole the show with a full-size mockup of its proposed shuttle replacement.

Although Transformational Space, or t/Space, has chosen not to bid for the contract to replace the shuttle, the company nevertheless hopes to beat big aerospace companies to orbit with a four-person crew transfer vehicle, or CXV, that NASA can use to send astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond.

Instead of bidding for the full amount ($500 million) it needs to develop the ship, as the primes will do, t/Space is asking NASA for small increments of development money in exchange for achieving significant milestones.

NASA is sitting up and taking notice; the space agency has already awarded t/Space $6 million for developing the CXV concept and building flight-test hardware that Scaled Composites will fly this week.

By Michael Belfiore

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