DALLAS (Reuters) - NASA is in the market for commercial relationships and private capital as it gears up for its next manned missions to the moon.
"That would make our life a lot easier," said Neil Woodward, acting director of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
The U.S. space agency is hoping to return to the moon in 2019 or 2020 and has longer range plans to send humans to Mars after that.
"If somebody says 'I have this really great way to be able to extract water ice from lunar regolith (lunar rocks) that I've developed on my own dime' we would be interested," Woodward said.
"If we could be in a commercial relationship with somebody who has the capability that's fine because in many cases they can do it for less money than we can," he told Reuters on the sidelines of a space development conference in Dallas.
Venture capital in space exploration was a key theme at the conference.
NASA's lunar plans envision the building of an outpost on the moon which would be continuously manned like the International Space Station is now.
"Maybe at that point there will be commercial exploitation and we won't be sending missions there but some of the commercial companies here will start sending people there," Woodward said.
Other commercial ventures in space include the possibility of fuel suppliers.
"One thing that keeps getting batted around is a fuel dump in orbit, in low Earth orbit. If someone was to build one of those and said do you want NASA to be a customer we would say yes because if you do the math it turns out that it would be an advantage to us," Woodward said.
"We're trying to help some commercial entities demonstrate that they can do low Earth orbit resupply to say the space station and once they can do that we can contract with them and then we don't have to do it ourselves anymore."
He said such ventures could be applied to other links in the supply chain from Earth to space.
"The space station needs a tremendous amount of food and water and scientific experiments to go up and down -- we're having to pay the Russians to do that after the shuttle retires," Woodward said, referring to the space shuttle fleet which is scheduled to be retired by 2010.
"It would be much better if there was an American company who had that capability and presumably being a private entity they may be able to do it for less expense," he said, adding that such initiatives would also be welcome for the moon missions.
"I could think of a dozen ways just off the top of my head that that would help us for supplying the moon outposts," he said.