Outer space may open for business
NASA is considering ways to attract commercial interest in new space station.
BOSTON — How would you like your company logo tattooed onto the side of the space station, where video cameras will always view it when a shuttle docks?
Are you ready to jostle with fellow Trekkies at the local Neiman-Marcus to snap up a Jean-Luc Picard action figure that has traveled to the station and back?
Or how about renting lab space and astronaut time to run an experiment that will lead to the next advance in ball bearings?
While these are only imaginary possibilities, they typify a broad range of approaches that NASA is considering in an effort to attract commercial interest to perhaps the ultimate billboard and laboratory - the new space station.
Like real estate barons trolling for tenants in their office buildings, agency officials are looking for ways to turn space-station modules into moneymakers. Certainly, some people within the space agency have misgivings about opening the station and its activities to private enterprise. But with NASA trying to get out of the space-operations business and refocus itself on fostering new technologies and exploration, many officials say this step is a necessary one.
"We're not talking about commercializing the entire station," says Mark Uhran, manager of space-station utilization at NASA headquarters in Washington. "We're talking about using the US portions as platforms for developing new products and services."
Nor is the US alone in looking for ways to recoup some of the public's investment in the $60 billion project. Japan and the European Space Agency, two of the project's major partners, have been looking at commercial prospects for the station as well, Mr. Uhran says. "But now that the station is finally flying, a lot more attention will be drawn to commercial applications."
According to a recent NASA study, potential users might range from pharmaceutical companies and telecommunications firms to the entertainment industry and advertising agencies. The study also suggests that much of the station's operation - from mission planning and maintenance to transportation, communications, and training - could be placed in private hands. So could the development of new capabilities, such as free-flying research platforms and extra modules.
Several factors are driving the move to put more of the station and its activities into private hands. One is budgets. The cost of operating shuttles and building the space station threatens to squeeze the agency's already tight research and exploration efforts. Private companies are expected to provide comparable levels of service and technical sophistication at a much lower cost.
In addition, Congress is putting pressure on NASA to take the shuttle and the fledgling station to market. The Commercial Space Act of 1998, which became law earlier this year, has among its provisions a requirement that NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin present lawmakers with a list of commercial opportunities the agency will open up during fiscal 1999 and 2000.
Finally, the aerospace industry itself seems ready for it. "There's been a revolution since 1996, the first year that commercial space earnings were higher than government spending on space. Commercial space business is on a roll," says Pat Dash, director of the National Space Society, which advocates the widespread development of space from its Washington headquarters.
Several obstacles, however, must be cleared if officials' hopes for commercialization are to bear fruit, according to a study on station commercialization published last year by the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a think-tank devoted to high-tech issues. Launch costs remain prohibitive. Flights are too few and the lead time between applying for a flight and launch is too long. Insurance is too expensive. And space-station construction will dominate shuttle payloads for several years.
In addition, says NASA's Uhran, the agency lacks even a basic price list for shuttle and space-station activities, as well as a central clearinghouse for proposals from the private sector.
Some hurdles are more fundamental. The Potomac Institute study, which NASA sponsored, noted that some people within NASA still don't view commercial development as part of the agency's mission - even though it has been official policy for 14 years. The push for commercialization "certainly represents a cultural change for NASA," says James Richardson, who directed the study.
Bit by bit, the agency is trying to address these problems, officials say. For example, the agency is looking for ways to dedicate one shuttle mission a year to commercial access to space - at least until the station is ready for occupancy. It's also looking to set aside space on each shuttle flight for commercial activities.
Still, the agency is moving in the right direction, says Ms. Dash. "[It] is planning ahead to accommodate the burgeoning space industry. NASA needs to be congratulated for that."