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Should NASA Privatize the ISS?

By aidoneus in News
Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 05:34:57 PM EST
Tags: News (all tags)

As was published earlier today in USA Today, NASA is considering privatizing their portion of the International Space Station, effectively turning over control and day to day operations to a corporation or group of corporations. Dan Tam, NASA's commercialization administrator, is quoted as saying, ''I want to turn over the keys of the shuttle and space station, so NASA only pays when we use them." The idea, which has yet to be presented to Congress, is certain to cause much debate. Should NASA give up this much control, can a corporation handle the responsibilities of running a space station, and does it make economic sense for NASA to let a nongovermental entity take the helm of the ISS?

While NASA has had a fairly long-standing relationship with corporations, in the launch of satellites, performance of experiments, and even has a webpage devoted to commercial uses of NASA technology, turning over such a large degree of control of a single program is unprecedented in its history. The potential merits of privitizing ISS are numerous. Most corporations strive for an almost ruthless efficiency. By privatizing the International Space Station, NASA would free up its scant resources for other paths of research, especially interplanetay missions. Privatizing the ISS would permit some degree of competition, which many feel is the best way to encourage growth. Drawbacks do exist however. The parallels between this venture and that of MirCorp (the commercial veture which currenlt operates Mir) are easy to draw. Safety of astronauts is a chief concern, along with concerns over handling the "international" aspect of the station. While a multinational corporation may have experience working abroad, working with Russia, Canada, the EU and Japan is bound to bring up unforseen challenges. Still, it would be interesting to see what happens if a commercial venture did end up taking up the reins of the ISS from NASA.


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Should NASA Privatize the ISS? | 17 comments (13 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
Private access to space is good (2.80 / 10) (#5)
by Signal 11 on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 06:19:40 PM EST

Well, if it gets companies thinking about space, it can't be bad. I've been wanting since I was a kid to build a privately-owned rocket to get people into space. My price tag is now under a million bucks based on the technologies available.. with a 2 kilo package costing $15k.

We have to get off this rock - exploring space has given us insight into a variety of technologies, and it allows us (humanity) to expand further. I for one applaud NASA for opening up the space station. I would add a condition though that any inventions be allowed to be pursued by any non-commercial interest at no charge. No patent fees for citizens - only corporations (if desired).

I can't wait to see the day when Arthur C. Clarke's ring around the world is a reality and when we have moon and mars bases. When we can start terraforming other planets. Then, truly, the human race will be able to survive forever.

Society needs therapy. It's having
trouble accepting itself.

Yay for NASA! (3.40 / 5) (#6)
by TheDude on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 06:25:29 PM EST

I think the privatization of the ISS would be a useful experiment to see if the privatization of formerly governmentally-controlled lands/buildings/departments really works. It may be a little risky to use the ISS for such an experiment, but why not start with something huge? I pretty much agree with Libertarians on their stance of privatizing most of the government's holdings and duties (such as national parks, roads, health care). I figure that privatizing the ISS would be a good way to see if this approach to reducing the government's size and power will work.

But politics aside, why shouldn't NASA privatize the ISS? It's going to be used by many organizations from many countries - why should NASA have to pay for it when others are using it? This will open up time for many organizations to do their research in the ISS as well. If people can buy time on the ISS instead of asking NASA for time, there'd be a whole lot more experiments going on up there, imo. That can't be a bad thing.

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waste of time anyway... (1.66 / 6) (#7)
by daani on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 07:24:59 PM EST

I don't usually say this, 'cos I'm one of those lefty types who believes that there is nothing clever about privatisation, but GOOD! Space exploration is a neat idea, and it gives bored people something interesting to read about, but what is the point of it? The amount of money already wasted on this ego-stroking exercise by both the USA and the former Soviet Union is nothing short of appalling. The returns? So far practically nothing.

Seeing the Earth from Space (4.00 / 1) (#9)
by freebird on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 03:03:18 AM EST

The returns? So far practically nothing

While there are increasing commercial returns from space programs (satellite telecom, GPS, etc), I have oft wondered, as I grew older, about the existence of good 'deeper' reasons for the admittedly great expense of space programs that had always fueled my unquestioning childhood imagination.

One possible answer? I think it can be argued fairly strongly that seeing the Earth from space has profoundly changed the way we think about it, and its relationship to us. And I think this change has been for the better, manifesting in increased environmental and global awareness.


[ Parent ]

Re: Seeing the Earth from Space (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by meadows_p on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 06:57:53 AM EST

There's also the element of keeping all of our eggs in one basket. I think that spreading mankind onto different planets is a fairly worthy cause. Obviously it's not happening yet, but things like the space station are the first start.

[ Parent ]
Re: waste of time anyway... (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by Darth Yoshi on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 11:05:21 AM EST

I apologize for what I'm about to say, and I'm not directing this at you in particular, but your comment reminds me of a general attitude that bothers me.

Why is it that some people think that what they do is "cool". Like, umm, for example, scuba-diving, hiking, flying, mountain climbing, computers, sports, or any number of other "cool" things. But if somebody is interested in something else, it's a "waste of time and money".

[ Parent ]

Re: waste of time anyway... (4.00 / 1) (#14)
by daani on Mon Oct 09, 2000 at 07:07:37 PM EST

Why is it that some people think that what they do is "cool". Like, umm, for example, scuba-diving, hiking, flying, mountain climbing, computers, sports, or any number of other "cool" things. But if somebody is interested in something else, it's a "waste of time and money".

Er, because mountain biking, hiking etc. does not involve spending billions of dollars to create a few nice soundbytes to put on the evening news. Maybe you should turn your question around and apply it to your own attitudes. eg. Why is it that some people think that just because something is "interesting" or "scientific" it automatically deserves an enormous chunk of public money. I for one would prefer the space-program money be spent on sport, at least then we could all enjoy it.

[ Parent ]

to waste or not to waste (none / 0) (#17)
by khallow on Wed Oct 18, 2000 at 04:50:53 PM EST

Er, because mountain biking, hiking etc. does not involve spending billions of dollars to create a few nice soundbytes to put on the evening news. Maybe you should turn your question around and apply it to your own attitudes. eg. Why is it that some people think that just because something is "interesting" or "scientific" it automatically deserves an enormous chunk of public money. I for one would prefer the space-program money be spent on sport, at least then we could all enjoy it.

That's a pretty good comeback. It is interesting that a considerable amount of public money is funnelled into sports. Namely, most sports stadiums are built with some public funding (at least in the US). The question is whether this money is better spent there than, let's say, on a few space shuttle lauches? For me, the answer would be the latter but with caveats.

In the US, these stadiums are built to maximize profit. It turns out that the best way is to build plenty of sky boxes for wealthy groups to hang out in. The profits from this category of sports fan are much better than the usual plebe in the bleachers. In fact, a number of teams have moved because the old stadium didn't have sufficient sky boxes (recent examples include the hockey team the NC Hurricanes and whatever that SF baseball team was that moved out of Candlestick Park). So the bottom line is that communities are giving money to team owners in an extreme form of corporate welfare.

Unfortunately, that's a lot of what's happening currently with the space program in the US and abroad. Space programs have become massive slush funds whose purpose is to keep alive a select group of companies and government organizations rather than explore and colonize space. I do believe that space exploration is sufficiently "interesting" and "scientific" to justify huge amounts of public money, but we're going about it in the wrong way.

For example, witness what has happened to the International Space Station (ISS). Back in 1984, the cost of ISS was estimated to be $8 billion and had swollen to $21 billion in 1997 as described in the previous link. Since then, depending on which presidential candidate you happen to believe, the eventual cost will either be $40 billion (Gore) or $50-100 billion (Bush). I believe these numbers come from the second debate. Don't tell me that all these costs were unanticipated.

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

Indemnification from lawsuits? (4.75 / 4) (#8)
by aphrael on Wed Oct 04, 2000 at 07:47:04 PM EST

If they go down this road, one of the interesting problems they're going to have to consider is that of *legal liability*. If an astronaut dies on the ISS, their relatives cannot sue NASA --- but if they die on a corporate-run space station, can the relatives sue the corporation?

Any corporation worth its salt is going to insist on rules which indemnify them against such suits --- and rightly so; space travel is inherently dangerous. But such indemnification removes the financial incentive to be cautious, and requires that the astronaut assume all of the risk, rather than having it be shared; is that really going to promote a safe space station?

Hard-core market types will insist that that's ok, because different competing space programs will lead to one which is safe and cheap. That may be true in theory, but the barriers to entry are extremely high; how many competing space programs would there actually be under such a system? And if it's just a matter of privatizing the existing space station, then there's only one, and there is no competition at all. Yet on the other hand, if you don't indemnify the company against lawsuits, then the company assumes all of the risk, which doesn't seem quite right, either.

It's a troubling situation either way.

Possibly not as troubling as you think (none / 0) (#11)
by ie on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 09:54:19 AM EST

IANAL, but I do have some experience with health/safety/legal issues. Workers cannot now sue their employers for death or injury under workers' compensation laws - part of the backbone of this law removes the employer liability, in return for oversight by WC and OSHA (which can bring criminal charges in the case of a willful violation of standards).

OTOH, corporations can still be liable, provided the person bringing the suit can prove "gross negligence", which is a higher legal standard than simple negligence. IOW, death due to the inherent risks of space work would not allow suit, but risk due to a foreseeable, preventable condition would allow suit. NASA could say they would hold companies harmless, but that still does not remove the obligation of the company to protect against gross negligence.

[ Parent ]

This is WAY moot. (4.00 / 2) (#13)
by Alhazred on Thu Oct 05, 2000 at 11:10:04 AM EST

There is no profit to be made...

Corporations don't do things because they are cool, they do them to make money. NASA btw is pretty damned efficient. No corporation is going to run the ISS for less money than NASA is, except by operating it in an unsafe manner. Thats the history of corporations, profit over safety. Exxon Valdez anyone?

Really, there is no money in the ISS. The only revenue stream would be charging NASA for the use of the thing, so the govt would still be paying 100% of the bill. The supposed "low gravity research" they keep touting has been a massive dud, almost noone is interested in doing research in zero-g.

However, I do support the ISS. The reason is simple. It is the attribute of all successful life forms that they exploit whatever niches they can find. This means spreading and expanding. Space is obviously the ultimate frontier. The ISS is not about doing research. Its about taking a first step. Proving that we can operate in space, and DOING IT. Columbus was not funded by corporations, nor Magellan, nor ANY of the other great explorers of history. Nor was the colonization of North America a profitable business at first. These endeavours were undertaken by far-sighted people. Eventually they lead to great wealth. Space exploration and colonization will too in the long run.

If we fail to undertake this challenge then we have failed to take up the great challenge of life. This is a historical opportunity, maybe never to be repeated. Should mankind shrink from it, then I say we deserve the extinction we will inevitably achieve instead.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
Re: This is WAY moot. (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by khallow on Tue Oct 10, 2000 at 09:55:37 PM EST

Before I make my main discussion, I wish to point out a large number of corporation funded explorers. Also, the earliest recorded explorers were for the most part traders or colonizers not government funded (e.g., Marco Polo, Eric the Red). For example, the privateers of England were more or less completely self-financed by plunder and loot, but legally santioned by the Crown of England. Several performed significant exploration activities (Sir Francis Drake in particular). The early merchant companies (e.g., English and Dutch East India companies) did extensive exploring. Even the early naval explorers though funded by government were there for purely economic reasons (a faster trade route to the Far East meant a major boost in the economics and strength of a country). Several English and Dutch explorers were funded by these oldest of companies.

Many trails in the central and Western US were explored by businessmen or by pioneers. E.g., Daniel Boone founded a trail from Virginia through the Cumberland Gap to eastern Tennessee and Kentucky. As a result, he was able to parley his success into a term as US Senator of Kentucky. David Crockett, Senator of Tennessee (and of Alamo fame) did the same.

The US railroad barons surveyed and built the railroads connecting across the length of the US. The USGS surveyed the route (Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, etc) and made it possible, but the railroad companies took big risks in laying the line. Indeed, in this century there are a number of examples of corporations willing to take big risks. So governments aren't necessary.

You wrote:

Corporations don't do things because they are cool, they do them to make money. NASA btw is pretty damned efficient. No corporation is going to run the ISS for less money than NASA is, except by operating it in an unsafe manner. Thats the history of corporations, profit over safety. Exxon Valdez anyone?

I disagree with the implied statement "NASA does cool (yet safe) things and corporations don't". NASA does have better vision than most corps, but the current organization is really living off of the good PR generated in the 60's. As far as man habitation goes, we've put one space station up there (Skylab) and are supporting a second. Russia has a better record since Mir is still up there and working!

I agree with the the arguments that specifically the ISS can't be properly commercialized. Tack on as additional problems the vagaries of public funding (being privatized won't help you get that money). OTOH, corporations have a proven record at minimizing costs while NASA has failed significantly in its latest attempt to reduce costs ("faster, cheaper, better?"). The airline industry is an example of an industry that has significant safety requirements and delivers on those demands. Indeed, the airline industry is a significant parallel to a private fledgling space industry.

One must ask why there's only enough resources for *one* space station (recall that NASA and others attempted to kill Mir)? NASA has a distressing tendency to build one of everything. E.g., there's one space telescope, both Jupiter and Saturn currently have one active probe each, one space station, etc. Further, the US-based launch capability is very restricted often with only one company occupying a particular price/performance region.

This latter point requires some elaboration. According to this, here is the list of current US launch vehicles as of January 2000:

  • Small: Pegasus, Taurus
  • Medium: Delta II, Titan II
  • Large: Atlas II , Titan versions, Space Shuttle
My understanding is that here, "small" means up to 3000 pounds low earth orbit (LEO) or 800 pounds geostationary (GTO), "medium" means around 6000-12,000 pounds to LEO and 2000-4000 pounds in GTO, and "large" is above this range. Loads can very considerably depending on the location of the launch site and the desired final orbit parameters.

Titans are used by the US military. The Space Shuttle is owned and operated by NASA. Pegasus and the larger Taurus are produced by Orbital Sciences Corp. Delta II is by Boeing. Lockheed/Martin owns and launches the Titan and Atlas vehicles. Note that the first two general categories contain several launch platforms operated by a single vendor. Since then, "Sea Launch" a Boeing/

I.e., if I wish to launch a "small" package then I have two choices Pegasus and Taurus, but there is a single vendor: Orbital Sciences. Boeing is the single Medium size platform (except if you're military in which case the single vendor is Lockheed). Lockheed has done the best. They have the Titans and Atlas II covering medium for the military and owning the only private large scale boosters. The space shuttle has the maximum load of any US platform of up to 55,000 pounds LEO depending on the duration of the flight and the desired orbital parameters. Note that Atlas and the Shuttle don't compete much since the Space Shuttle often handles missions that no rocket can handle and that the Shuttle is considerably more expensive than an Atlas launch ($500 million vs $100 million I guess).

so what does this mean? It means that launches are virtually noncompetitive in the US market(the Large scale has a number of international competitors mostly government). Why am I so focussed on launch capability? Because you aren't going to have anything in space until somebody puts it there.

The point is that NASA is promoting this static state of affairs. We have effectively three launch companies at this time (Lockheed/Martin, Orbital Sciences, and Boeing). Internationally, the situation is similar. The barrier to entry is high (and artificially so). I.e., there are two categories of barriers. The first is the extreme amount of infrastructure required to launch a vehicle. One must have manufacturing capability to build the vehicle, the earth-side transport and launch facilities, and the tracking facilities needed to maintain control of a launch after it leaves the ground. NASA and Russia have the best tracking networks out there (another area of government control).

The second barrier to entry is legal barriers. Clearly, it's not good to have rockets landing in downtown London, so regulations are required for a healthy space economy. Here again, the airline industry is a good example of the right and wrong approaches to a regulated transportation network. Clearly wrong approaches are airlines that have a monopoly on a nation or region, but there are poorly regulated competitive airlines that are worse (e.g., in Russia). I argue that the competitive lines of the US and parts of Europe are generally cheaper and safer than their monopolized counterparts. Similarly, space transportation needs a large number of competitors to function well, but this market needs regulation. If we look at the current state in the world, we see many fiefdoms each with its own little clique of customers and suppliers. Often (as in the case of NASA) there are legal and political restrictions.

None of the government agencies provide support for independent launchers. E.g., NASA has its selected group of companies that provide launch services. Similarly, ESA has its assembly of companies. An independent launcher would threaten these arrangements. OTOH, if you're a member of one of these groups, then you will get guaranteed business from the hosting organization (and an unfair competitive advantage).

So here's my conclusions. Large areas of space flight need to be commercialized. The most important at this stage is space launch capability from Earth to orbit. Too much launch capability is in the hands of noncompetitive groups and these groups show signs that they prefer it that way.

Please flame away. This article needs some more comments anyway.

Stating the obvious since 1969.
[ Parent ]

Re: This is WAY moot. (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by Alhazred on Thu Oct 12, 2000 at 10:58:44 AM EST

The problem is many-sided.

First there are HUGE barriers to entry. Notice that in the commercial airliner business there are essentially only 2 competitors, Boeing and Airbus. Boeing BTW owns Lockheed... The reason is simple. There is a large incentive for airlines to standardize on one vendor, and the costs of developing a new aircraft are MANY billions of dollars, just the flight testing alone required by the FAA is a 10 year process for a multi-engine passenger jet! I worked in the industry, and on some of the space launcher systems too. Its the same thing. Billions were put into each launch system. The kind of competition your talking about is not likely in that kind of environment.

As you pointed out NASA is another barrier. Unfortunately they have a strong "not invented here" problem. In the early '70s the DOD funded a research project by Martin Marietta. The result was the "big dumb rocket" concept. Big dumb rocket means you simply build a HUGE rocket with very simple technology. No turbo-compressors or other moving parts, just gravity/pressure feed of fuel, low chamber temperatures, etc. Its an inefficient rocket, but very cheap to build. For about 1 million dollars Martin fabricated engines that were welded together by shipyard construction techniques that worked beautifully. Most of the rest of the rocket is just fuel, which if its LH2/LOX is super cheap, so if the rocket is REALLY big it can still lift a heavy payload and they could be churned out on an assembly line very easily, so costs could be made very low for the launcher. Even if the thing is only 80% reliable you spend less replacing a few payloads than you save on launch costs. NASA would have nothing to do with it, they didn't invent it, and it threatened their budgets!

The real problem for space launch companies is the low volume of demand though. There just aren't that many launches required. Maybe eventually it will happen, but as we have seen with Iridium, there are many factors involved in the success of a system. Few if any corporations can take those risks, there are simply other better ways to make money.

Eventually technology will lower costs enough and space will open up much more, but its always going to be expensive, at least in our lifetimes, and probably only limited numbers of people will get involved. Looking for economic justification for everything we do is simply not the best way to develop space.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
[ Parent ]
Should NASA Privatize the ISS? | 17 comments (13 topical, 4 editorial, 0 hidden)
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