Back last May, James A. Ralph thought teaming up with NASA on a commercial space venture would be relatively simple. His company, International Space Corporation in Melbourne, Fla., plans to grow crystals on the shuttle. These, he says, could give United States computer chipmakers an edge over the Japanese. A group of investors has eagerly backed the project.
Why not? President Reagan and the full Congress are pushing for private industry ties to the shuttle program. Per their orders, didn't NASA set up a commercial program office in the fall of 1984? And hasn't the Strategic Defense Initiative added impetus to this program?
But May dragged into June for James Ralph. Week after week an agreement seemed imminent. Yet, one faction or another within NASA got into the act.
``We had to continually revise our joint-endeavor contract to make it acceptable to the organizations within NASA,'' Mr. Ralph recalls.
Finally, last month, the haggling ended. International Space Corporation joined the handful of small businesses with the temerity to secure a joint-endeavor agreement (JEA) in the face of NASA red tape.
Actually, International Space Corporation may have got off easy.
``It took us 16 months to negotiate our JEA,'' says John Cassanto, president of Instrumentation Technology Associates of Malvern, Pa. ``The McDonnell Douglases of the world can handle that, but it's too long for a small company to wait. We were hanging by our teeth.''
Delays can be especially tough on small start-ups, because they often don't have the money to wait out NASA. Mr. Ralph says the delays cost his company some second-round financing. Also, unlike the large aerospace companies, the small operations often lack the expertise or the contacts within NASA that might grease the bureaucratic gears.
The problem, NASA observers say, is that the commercial space policy has come as something of a culture shock for the agency. For many years, NASA personnel have worn the garb of a research-and-development agency. Not everyone within the agency is enamored with the new commercial hat supplied by Congress and the President.
``The infighting is terrible; everyone's protecting their fiefdom,'' complains a NASA consultant who asked not to be identified.
``Support for commercialization hasn't spread throughout the agency,'' says Brad Meslin, executive vice-president at the Center for Space Policy Inc., an investment and consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. ``There's a lot of tension internally, because many people came to NASA to work for an R&D facility. It takes time for them to adjust to the new initiative.''
``There is no disagreement about the importance of commercialization at NASA,'' says Stan Goldberg of the commercial development division of NASA's Office of Commercial Programs. But he allows that ``there are discussions and differences of opinion associated with the details of implementing certain portions of the program.''
Officials point out that the Office of Commercial Programs is still in its infancy. In its first year, about half of the 60-odd joint ventures have been signed.
Not a bad record, says Mr. Goldberg, when one realizes that each company wants to do something different. Each agreement requires his office to negotiate with any number of NASA agencies that may be affected by the project. ``And such negotiations take time in any organization,'' he says.
Critics say the problem is the Office of Commercial Programs is just a liaison. It provides guidance to businesses but lacks authority or money to approve projects without agreement from all involved departments within NASA. Often the departments suspect private ventures may undercut their own work. In fact, some private ventures do take money or shuttle space away from NASA.
To bring some order to this problem, Goldberg says, private industry, NASA R&D, and the Department of Defense now each get one-third of a shuttle's mid-deck experiment space.
``I think there's a sincere desire to work with the private sector, but the commercial office is understaffed; it's a question of resources,'' comments S. Neil Hosenball, director of the Center for Space Law and Policy at the University of Colorado. Until last August Mr. Hosenball was NASA's general counsel.
But the prospect for new financial resources is dim. The Gramm-Rudman ax has already begun its downstroke. If NASA's budget is pared, that may increase dickering within the agency over which private ventures get the go-ahead.
Meanwhile, businesses are impatient about getting on with space development.
``NASA's trying to do a good job, but I'm not sure that's enough,'' says Mr. Cassanto. ``Time is money. If commercialization of space is going to happen, they've got to streamline the system.''
Goldberg responds: ``We're trying to streamline the process, but it takes time to bring about change and educate people. We're stabilizing now. This year we'll be much more effective.''
But James Meyers, a lawyer with Steele, Simmons & Fornachiari in Washington, has negotiated several commercial contracts with NASA, and he isn't sure more money or ``streamlining'' will ever greatly shorten the agreement process.
``It's inherent in NASA's structure that everybody has to be consulted and reach a consensus,'' Mr. Meyers says. ``The government process just doesn't produce quick decisions. And with the commercial ventures, there's often no time pressure on NASA to make these decisions.''
So Mr. Ralph advises would-be space entrepreneurs: ``Be ready for a long haul -- double or triple your time line. The maze there changes daily. Keep an open communication line with NASA. . . . You've got to keep on top of it if you ever hope to succeed.''