NASA thinks it's time to commercialize the transport of people and cargo within Earth's orbit.
In particular, the space agency is considering outsourcing services related to the International Space Station so that it can direct more NASA resources to outer space exploration.
NASA signed three more agreements on Tuesday to share information with companies regarding its technology. The space agency said the partnerships set up a testing ground to see if private industry is up to the task.
"After industry has demonstrated safe and reliable capabilities, NASA plans to enter the next phase of the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program and may purchase transportation services from commercial providers to supply the International Space Station," said a NASA statement on the matter.
The shift would be not surprising considering NASA's recent budget problems. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has said that NASA does not have enough funding to run continuous manned space missions and meet all of its goals set by the NASA Authorization Act of 2005. Outsourcing and commercialization could be one way of alleviating the problem.
"By stimulating the growth of commercial space enterprise, NASA plans to free itself to focus on long-range exploration to the moon and Mars," NASA said in Tuesday's announcement.
The three companies, which have former NASA employees on staff and have already been developing projects on their own, could be a good indication of what NASA plans to unload.
Constellation Services International (CSI) of Laguna Woods, Calif. is developing LEO Express, a delivery service for space that would use standard cargo containers already used for transport on Earth.
Poway, Calif.-based SpaceDev develops rocket-based propulsion systems for getting vehicles into orbit and orbital transfer vehicles, among other things.
Spacehab, which operates out of Houston, recently named former NASA astronaut, Bernard Harris, as its vice president of operations and the director of its life sciences program. The astronaut and doctor is developing equipment to aid humans living and working in space.
NASA already has agreements with two other private companies for commercial orbital transportation services. This brings the total to five.
The news follows yet another NASA set-back. Last week, computer and power glitches aboard the International Space Station put some of its tools used for maintaining orientation and stability in jeopardy.