Bernard Darnton
Bernard Darnton

Space: The Commercial Frontier!

The last time anyone walked on the moon was the day before I was born. To be honest, I’m a little annoyed at missing the show. Similar injustices bug other people. One disgruntled space-nut tells the story of his grandmother tucking him up in bed early on the night of the Apollo 17 landing, telling him not to worry about missing it because soon we’d be landing on the moon every day. Rather than sitting here whining though, some of those other people are doing something about it.

For years, the story of space was billed as one of two mighty competitors, a titanic struggle between good and evil, the battle between Capitalism and Communism. In 1969, Neil Armstrong left his historic first boot print in the Sea Of Tranquillity. Communism had won.

The United States had beaten the Soviets but they hadn’t beaten socialism, they had embraced it. Apollo burned through twenty five billion stolen dollars - and that’s in 1960 dollars, back when petrol cost 7 cents a gallon (or something) and a billion really meant something. The state directed the labour of four hundred thousand workers in pulling off the biggest stunt show in history - thus proving that our version of socialism could make more kick-ass toys than their version.

Snideness aside, the moon landings were an impressive achievement. Sixties NASA was quite unlike any other government organisation. It was goal-oriented, innovative, and delivered results. Unlike other government organisations, it had, in the Soviet Union, a competitor against whom its performance could be measured.

Today NASA is an anachronism whose main effect is to impede development. Fortunately there are plenty of other organisations popping up promising to give NASA a run for its money, although a lot of these projects tend to be high on vision but low on business skills. The most promising development, which appeared out of nowhere at the beginning of this year is MirCorp.

The formation of MirCorp was announced in February this year. Bermuda-registered, Amsterdam-based MirCorp has taken out a lease on the Russian space station Mir. While the station is still owned by the partly privatised Russian space agency Energia, MirCorp now has total control over its use. The first privately funded trip took place in April..

On the face of it, leasing Mir seems like a pretty dodgy proposition. Designed with an intended life of five years, it is now fourteen years old. It has played host to a spectacular array of near disasters. In 1997, during the joint Shuttle-Mir missions, there was a fire; various computer, electrical, cooling, and oxygen generation system shutdowns; a near-miss with a supply ship; and, most frighteningly, a collision with a supply ship that punctured the hull. NASA, understandably, wants nothing further to do with what it sees as a dangerously decrepit rust bucket.

NASA also has good political reasons for wanting Mir out of the way. They have committed themselves to the International Space Station, a massively over-budget venture that is years behind schedule. With Mir still in use, NASA believes that the Russians aren’t fully focused on the ISS, contributing to the delays in the program, and that they may even be diverting ISS money into the Mir program.

After the Russians ran out of money to keep Mir running, they planned to deorbit the station, letting it break up and burn as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere with the debris raining down into the Pacific Ocean. That would have happened this year without the intervention of Walter Anderson.

Anderson, who describes himself as an anarcho-capitalist, is a near-billionaire having made his fortune in the telecommunications industry. He has always been interested in space flight and making his dreams a reality at the same as thumbing his nose at the government gives him quite a kick.

Having an existing station now in commercial hands runs the risk of making NASA extremely unhappy. MirCorp plans to revamp the platform over the next few years, plans which include the replacement of the core module. This would bring the average age of the components down to around five years at a cost of around $250 million, a tiny fraction of the International Space Station’s estimated $100 billion cost.

While NASA boss Dan Goldin talks vaguely about ‘commercial applications’ for ISS, MirCorp is brimming with ideas. President of MirCorp, Jeffrey Manber, explains that the station will be used for traditional microgravity research on pharmaceuticals, new metal alloys, and pure materials for the electronics industry, along with less traditional activities.

They plan to put up the world’s first space based internet portal, and are talking about running entertainment packages such as a game show or reality-based TV. A company called Celestis wants to put people’s ashes into orbit after cremation. There have been numerous suggestions of running gambling operations and shooting pornographic films, although Manber states that while gambling is a future possibility, the porn flicks are not going to happen.

MirCorp plans to sell licences to the considerable intellectual property rights that surround Mir technology. Anderson claims that no one will be able to "build so much as an airlock without paying MirCorp something first." This claim may be excessive but the profit-driven attitude shows the sort of entrepreneurialism that has been desperately lacking in the space industry.

Advertising is one of the first areas that is likely to help Mir to pay for itself. The idea isn’t new - in the midst of 1997’s hair-raising events, cosmonauts took time out from repairs to film a milk commercial (which had to be reshot because, for some reason, cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev wasn’t smiling). In July this year, Russia’s belated launch of the Zvezda service module for the ISS was overshadowed by the fact that its Proton launch vehicle had a million dollars worth of Pizza Hut logo emblazoned on the side.

This is something that would never happen at NASA. Internal memos hint at chief Dan Goldin’s almost fanatical obsession with keeping spacecraft clean of logos and trademarks. Contrast this with Walt Anderson’s plans for Mir. "We’ll paint it up like a Nascar," he declares.

The plan that has grabbed the most column-inches though, despite only being a small part of the projected business, is that to send visitors (or "citizen-explorers") to the station. The first space tourist is currently in training at Star City near Moscow and will travel some time early next year. I couldn’t suggest a better date than April 12, 2001, the fortieth anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight. Reacting to that news in 1961, John F. Kennedy’s rather lame response to the Soviet Union’s stunning success was, "The question is not ‘Who was the first man in space?’ but ‘Who will be the first free man in space?’"

We now know the answer to that question. He will be Dennis Tito, a California investment consultant. Tito used to work for NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory but quit his engineering job to form Wilshire Associates, his Santa Monica investment house. This career move laid the foundations for the financial success which has enabled him to shell out $20 million for his week long orbital jaunt.

Less than a year ago, optimistic experts were suggesting that commercial space travel may be as little as five years away. Just a few months later, the tickets are already being booked, the travellers are beginning their preparations and the somewhat spartan hotel has already had its air leaks plugged.

MirCorp’s Jeffrey Manber says that the company plans to list on the stock exchange in the middle of next year, so even if you can’t afford one of their holidays you can still feel as if you’re part of the action.

Dan Goldin says the right things - "The only way we’re going to break free from Earth orbit is to turn over low Earth orbit to the entrepreneurs" - but NASA’s actions speak louder than Goldin’s words. An ageing and inefficient space shuttle fleet and its over-priced justification, the International Space Station, are never going to be economically viable. Using taxpayer funds to subsidise satellite launches and price private launchers out of the market doesn’t look much like "turning over low Earth orbit to the entrepreneurs."

The National Taxpayers Union Foundation had the right idea when they titled a recent report "Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way: The Case for Privatising NASA." The report’s Executive Summary states that, "Today America faces a choice for the future of its space program. It can either continue to allow the NASA bureaucracy to monopolise space, or turn it over to the private sector..." Now, less than a year after the publication of those words, America no longer faces a choice, it faces a fait accompli.

This is going to be the Decade of All Sorts of Things, one of those Things being the commercialisation of space. While MirCorp’s future is far from guaranteed, it looks probable that, unlike in the sixties’ race for the moon, capitalism will win in this, the real space race. The likelihood that capitalism’s victory will be catalysed by Russian launchers carrying Russian-trained cosmonauts to a Russian space station while America stagnates and strangles itself with red tape is just one more delicious, dramatic twist in the endlessly exciting, often surprising story of human progress.

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