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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 June, 2004, 04:23 GMT 05:23 UK
Bush commission urges Nasa reform
President Bush laughs in front of a video screen showing astronaut Michael Foale
Mr Bush wants to send people to Mars
The American space agency Nasa needs fundamental reform if the US is to implement President Bush's vision of a new era of manned space flight.

That is the main conclusion of the Moon to Mars Commission, set up by the president in January.

The report will be officially released on Wednesday but details have already been emerging.

It describes Nasa as a "relic of the Apollo age", and says major changes are needed to fulfil the president's goals.

Mr Bush has urged sending humans back to the Moon and eventually to Mars.

The top priority is to involve the private sector as much as possible, out-sourcing research, development and above all launches - all unmanned launches into Earth orbit should be farmed out to private companies, it says.

Divided opinion

But last year's inquiry into the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia partially blamed too much private sector involvement.

"The reason that we've had big cost over-runs with the space station, and the reason we lost the Columbia shuttle [can be put down to] over-reliance on private contractors," said John Pike, a space expert with the research group globalsecurity.org.

"Even more reliance on contractors is just going to waste a lot of taxpayers' money."

The commission takes the opposite view. It says that opening the agency's activities up to competition will lead to more efficient operations, stimulate innovation and encourage the growth of a private space industry - though it believes that manned missions should remain under Nasa's direct control for safety reasons.

Nasa will not comment officially until the report is formally released but Administrator Sean O'Keefe, a Bush appointee, has already said he will implement its recommendations.

That means that large parts of the agency will be sold off or closed down, and here scientists are divided.

One prominent astronomer told the BBC it would have serious consequences for space science, while another said researchers would benefit by being liberated from Nasa bureaucracy.

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