While Columbia's loss is a tragedy, the ensuing debate about funding and NASA's purpose highlights new opportunities. Maybe it's time to consider different approaches to operations using industry placed service contracts.

Today we are not limited by technology, but lack of will and economic risk. A bold vision could put a new infrastructure in place for a viable economic future in space through reliable personnel transports and a heavylift capability for building systems that will take us beyond low orbit.

Shuttle flights consume $7 billion of NASA's annual budget. If the US government wants to encourage the private sector into orbit it could invite industry to provide the service for International Space Station crew rotation. Offer a contract for five crew transfer services a year, at a guaranteed $2-3 billion a year over 10 years and they will come up with effective systems, leaving NASA to concentrate on research and exploration. With the private sector servicing NASA requirements, any spare capacity could be used in emerging ventures such as tourism.

Space Shuttle hardware could be re-engineered as an unmanned heavylift launch vehicle in the 80-100t payload capacity with "lifting body" engines and hybrid booster rockets for improved performance and reduced environmental impact.

The technology exists at lower risk than exotic single-stage to orbit spaceplanes. We can't build the Starship Enterprise, but with lower expectations we can achieve regular manned transport throughout Earth-moon space for a start.

Mark Poulter Qinetiq, Farnborough,UK

Source: Flight International