NASA got a cool response to its first effort to arrange private financing for space projects, partly because it turned out the government way was cheaper, a government study says.

"Private concerns were not willing to invest in most of the projects because they perceived few or no commercial markets for them," said the General Accounting Office, which reviewed the NASA effort.The space agency sought private financing last year for seven projects worth nearly $800 million, but only one wound up being commercialized, GAO said.

A cornerstone of the U.S. space policy under presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan has been to increase private sector investment. To that end, Bush's budget last year proposed private financing for the projects in the space shuttle and space station programs.

The GAO said it reviewed NASA's actions "because this was the first effort of this type."

Not only did private industry not see a commercial market, said GAO, about half the projects were believed too far along in development to modify for commercial use without added expense and delay. For some, the financial risk was judged to be too high.

"Private financing would have significantly increased the government's cost for some projects," the study said.

The ventures were an advanced solid rocket motor production facility in Yellow Creek, Miss., a weightlessness laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, a space station payload processing facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a processing laboratory for observational instruments at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, a robotic arm and a docking system for the space station, and equipment to make the shuttle able to fly 16-day missions.

NASA rejected financing plans three of the four construction jobs because they would have been significantly more costly than if the money was provided by the government.

Private financing of space projects was intended to help reduce NASA spending, GAO said, but added it is an "unlikely possibility" that private industry can borrow money cheaper than government.

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Countdown begins for Discovery launch

The countdown began Wednesday for the shuttle Discovery's Saturday morning takeoff to fire a European probe to the sun in NASA's latest bid to end a five-month launch drought.

The intricate countdown procedure began at 3:30 a.m. EDT Wednesday with the ship's five-man crew scheduled to fly to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida from Houston about 12 hours later for final preparations.

With an 80 percent chance of good weather expected and no technical problems under discussion, Discovery is scheduled to blast off at 7:35 a.m. Saturday.

But final clearance to launch will depend on a leak-free fueling operation Friday night and permission from a federal judge in Washington for Discovery to carry the nuclear-powered Ulysses probe into orbit.