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Hopes for US space station lift off again. Former astronaut wants to be `landlord' of orbiting industrial park

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 7, 1987



Boston

After a period of apathy and dismay following the Challenger disaster, the United States appears to be reentering - if only at a crawl - the race to commercialize space. Joseph Allen, for one, plans to be a part of that race. This former astronaut-turned-businessman wants to be landlord of the first industrial park in space. In his mind's eye he can see it floating in frigid solitude 230 miles above the earth - a $500 million, 35-foot-long, 14.5-foot-wide space station, or Industrial Space Facility (ISF).

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Not to be confused with the $14.6 billion publicly financed space station being built by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Dr. Allen's ISF is a much smaller, for-profit effort.

``We are like a general architects' firm that has designed a fairly substantial office building,'' says Allen, marketing director of Space Industries Inc., of Houston. ``We have taken the ISF this far on speculation, the conviction that it is important, and that there will be a market.''

But the long-term success of ISF is strongly linked to the gradual deployment of NASA's space station, which seems likely to be hit hard by the recent congressional budget cut compromise. NASA has gone ahead bravely, recently awarding $5 billion in space station contracts to Rockwell International, McDonnell Douglas Astronautics, Boeing Aerospace, and General Electric despite the threat. The space station was supposed to be built by 1994, but probably won't be finished until later.

A self-proclaimed optimist, Allen sees reasons to be hopeful even though the ISF is just a schematic drawing at this point. Allen says the ISF will be in orbit by 1992. But whether it ever flies depends most on US businesses, and whether they will commit to lease part of it. Success also depends on the reliability of the space shuttle.

Yet, a number of experts say ``cautious optimism'' is growing.

``There has been a subtle shift in mood, from dead in the water to a greater anticipation,'' says John Egan, who heads the Egan Group, a consulting company in Washington, D.C., which helps prepare business plans for companies trying to get research projects into space.

Reasons for the shift in mood include the following:

A fast-approaching date for launching the first manned space shuttle launch since Challenger, scheduled for next June 2.

Nearly $5 billion in space station contracts have been awarded. Presidential and congressional political support for it remains strong, though it is likely the recent $76 billion budget cut will slow deployment.

The appointment of James Rose, an experienced aerospace industry executive and commercial space research expert to head the recently reorganizaed Office of Commercial Programs at NASA.

Advances of rival nations - the Soviet Union, Japan, France - in crucial areas. The Soviets, for example, have had a series of manned space stations in orbit since the early '70s; and the French have excelled in remote sensing satellites and launch vehicles.

Excitement generated by private launch services has been one notable exception to the period of sluggish interest in commercial space activity. Since Mr. Reagan mandated private companies to launch most commercial payloads, a bevy of US start-ups and aerospace giants have been vying to launch satellites and experimental packages into orbit.

But Peter E. Glaser, an authority on space applications and vice-president at Arthur D. Little Inc., in Cambridge, Mass., says the US still lags behind Europe, Japan, and other countries in recognizing the growing commercial importance of space. Though Europe has scaled back its space budget a bit, Dr. Glaser cites a recent European commitment to spend $14 billion on new space projects and a Japanese pledge to spend $40 billion on space within 15 years, compared with the stop, start, and cut approach to NASA funding.

``Slowly, people are realizing the question we must resolve is whether the US is going to be No. 2, No. 3, or No. 4 in space,'' Glaser says. ``The danger of slipping to fourth place would have some tremendous economic effects, not immediately, but in the long run.''

Congress and the President support the space station program, he says, yet ``the problem is that in the space game all these other countries talk about 12-15-20-year program plans and then commit funds to them. They have the advantage of experience and data. If you outspend your competition by a factor of 3 to 5, obviously you will be ahead technically.''