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The new space race

Former Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin's lack of terpsichorean talent on Dancing with the Stars caught the attention of millions of Americans. But Aldrin's attempt to show he has a fun side shouldn't detract from the seriousness of his support for President Obama's efforts to drastically change the nation's manned space program.

Obama's plan to give the private sector a larger role got a big boost last Friday6/4 with the successful launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Cape Canaveral. The rocket was built by SpaceX, a company founded by PayPal cofounder Elon Musk.

Plans are for the Falcon 9 to haul a cargo capsule on a second low-orbit test flight this summer. If all goes well, next year the Falcon will replace the space shuttles in delivering supplies to the International Space Station. By then, all three shuttles will be retired. Atlantis completed its final mission last month. Discovery's last flight is scheduled for September, and Endeavour's in November. After that, they become museum exhibits.

Idling the shuttles will effectively end direct funding of NASA's manned flight program until a new deep-space vehicle is developed. President George W. Bush's goal to return to the moon will be scuttled, which displeases first moonwalker Neil Armstrong.

But Aldrin, the second man on the moon, believes Obama's route is a better approach to Mars and beyond. "What this nation needs … is a near-term focus on lowering the cost of access to space and on developing key, cutting-edge technologies that will take us further and faster," he said.

Aldrin's right. Obama recognized problems in the space administration's grand ambitions to go back to the moon and eventually to Mars, especially in a recession. By enlisting private enterprise to take on low-orbit jobs, he hopes to free up money and time for NASA to concentrate on deep-space missions, including Mars.

This new path is a gamble. But it's the same type of thinking that put Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon. Clinging to the ancient space shuttles while leaving it to government to pay all of the expense to develop new rockets is a bad formula. Entrepreneurship can be the fuel that actually takes the United States further.

Already there are more than 20 private space companies, including Blue Horizon, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Virgin Atlantic airlines founder Richard Branson has started Virgin Galactic, anticipating space tourists. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have contracts to fly cargo to the space station. And they will do it at less than $50 million per payload. NASA says it would cost $200 million a month to extend the shuttle program past its planned December shutdown.

Much of the criticism of Obama's plan has more to do with the tens of thousands of jobs with NASA and its contractors that will be lost. Only a fraction will be reborn in the private sector. That has members of Congress from affected states like Texas and Florida ready to put up a fight.

Obama is trying to mitigate the harm to their states with millions of dollars for job training and counseling. But their claim that the old way is the only way to explore space is not only false; it's also too expensive. It's time to open up this enterprise to the private sector, and see where it takes us.