The Sky's the Limit?

Controversy over the troubled Space Station has discouraged commercial users. But upcoming events could suddenly spark interest.

It is numbingly expensive. It reeks of political pork. It is years behind schedule. Its design is faulty, its financing shaky. Worse yet, it's not even needed. The target of all these criticisms -- and others -- is the International Space Station (ISS), a 16-year-old, U.S.-led undertaking that for legions of skeptics has become the epitome of wasteful extravagance. It is billed as the largest and most complex international scientific project in history. So far, though, its main distinction is its reputation as one the most controversial projects in history. But the chorus of criticism might soon soften. So hopes, anyway, the U.S.' National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), which is managing the endeavor. The agency is counting on two events within the next few weeks to reverse the perception of ISS as a troubled, star-crossed project and, as a result, awaken the somnolent interest of potential commercial customers who ultimately are expected to bear the cost of the station and reap its benefits. The first event is Oct. 30 when the first three-man crew -- two Russians and an American -- is scheduled to travel to the station in a Russian Soyuz rocket and take up residence. This pioneer crew, due to be replaced in February, will begin installing components and performing flight-test duties on the station, assembly of which began in space in December 1998 but won't be fully completed until 2005. If all goes well, the second event will come in January when the U.S. laboratory module, Destiny, will be attached to the ISS. Destiny will be followed over the next few years by five more labs -- one European, a Japanese, a Russian, a Canadian, and a second U.S. module. "With a crew living in the station and the U.S. laboratory on orbit, we expect interest by commercial customers to become much more keen," declares Mark L. Uhran, NASA's director of space utilization and product development. "Although the program has been under way for years, it only now is reaching its most exciting stage." Until now, Uhran admits, commercial interest has been decidedly muted. Industrial and other potential customers have been reluctant to commit to the program, he says, "until they know a laboratory is available on orbit." Agreeing is Ralph Moslener, director of business development and advanced programs for Boeing Co., Seattle, ISS' prime contractor. "We're very early in building this thing," he comments. "People who make profit-and-loss decisions in industry have been taking a wait-and-see attitude. But commercial interest should take off after the U.S. lab is up. "And then, after the early adopters begin to make investments in the station and have some successes, there should be a bell curve ramp-up over the next three to five years." The lack of customer enthusiasm surely has been influenced, too, by the controversy that has swirled around the station. Ever since President Reagan proposed it in 1984, initially as a U.S.-only venture to compete with the Soviet space stations, it has been a target of critics. Cost has been one point of contention. Although the station originally was projected to cost only $8 billion and be orbiting by the early '90s, design difficulties soon soaked up $10 billion -- with nothing in space to show for it. Moreover, the end of the Cold War eliminated the urgency of keeping up with the Russians. Congress turned increasingly sour on the program. To help spread the funding, the Reagan Administration invited international participation. Eleven European nations -- Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK -- became partners, working through the European Space Agency. Canada, Japan, and Brazil also joined the partnership. In 1993 Russia became the 16th partner, and the station's design was scaled down to make it more affordable. Today, estimates for the station's total life-cycle cost -- including initial design, hardware, Space Shuttle flights to assemble it and ferry supplies, and operational expenses -- have climbed to $94 billion, calculates Congress' General Accounting Office. This Everest-like figure still troubles many Congressional critics -- one reason NASA's budget often has had a hard time getting Capitol Hill approval. Yet Congress isn't likely to kill the program. NASA has effectively curried Congressional favor by parceling out ISS contracts; the U.S. portion of the project has 14 major subcontractors in no fewer than 23 states, with much of the work being done in districts of influential legislators. Hundreds of smaller subcontractors, vendors, and suppliers -- the number has never been counted -- also are sharing in the largesse. More than $2 billion in subcontracts has been awarded to small business, a potent political lobby, and to minority-owned firms. If charges of escalating cost and political pork have NASA on the defensive, so have grumblings about the ISS' timetable slippage. Despite its internationalization and slimmed-down design, the project has continued to fall behind schedule. The main culprit has been Russia. Already regarded as an unreliable partner because of its difficulties with its own Mir space station, Russia was scheduled to launch a key element of the ISS, the Zvezda service module, in July 1998. But the financially troubled nation struggled to come up with money for the 22-ton pod, in which the astronauts will live. Zvezda wasn't launched until July of this year. NASA clearly was sweating that launch. Had it failed, says Daniel Tam, the agency's special assistant for commercialization, "we'd have had trouble keeping the project alive." But success of the launch, which set the stage for Oct. 30's launch of the initial crew, has eased concerns over Russian reliability. And it has put the project back on track. The 2005 target date for the ISS to become fully operational now seems achievable. When completed, the station will be the largest-ever structure in space. Measuring 356 ft across, 290 ft long, and seven stories high, and weighing some 460 tons, it will enclose more than 1,716 cu yd of pressurized space. That's more than four times larger than Mir, which follows a long line of Soviet/Russian space stations that first orbited in the early 1970s, and the U.S.' Skylab, which orbited in 1973 and 1974. The ISS will hurtle some 230 miles above Earth at a speed of more than 17,000 mph, circling the globe every 92 minutes. The sheer size of the ISS is one of its prime selling points. "We'll have the capacity to conduct between 200 and 300 individual experiments in the U.S.' share of the station alone," says NASA's Uhran. "That compares with only 20 or 30 experiments that can be done on MIR." Not surprisingly, NASA cites that comparison in responding to criticism that the ISS isn't needed -- criticism to which the agency is sensitive. For one thing, skeptics argue that the research envisioned for the ISS can be performed aboard the existing Space Shuttle. But NASA points out that a shuttle flight stays in orbit only two weeks. In contrast, the ISS is planned to circle Earth at least 15 years, thus providing long-term, continuous ability for human-tended experiments. And, as Tam notes, the ISS "won't have the shaking and rattling that comes with the shuttle." Critics also contend that research in space can be conducted equally effectively, and far more cheaply, by unmanned spacecraft equipped with ground-controlled robots. To this, NASA's Roger Crouch, ISS chief scientist, acknowledges that in some circumstances robots offer advantages over human-tended research and will be used in later experiments aboard the station. But he insists robots are no substitute for the human mind. "Robots are extremely useful for performing jobs that are routine and redundant," he explains. "But research on the ISS is cutting edge, and will change rapidly over time as we discover new information." Just what cutting-edge research will be conducted aboard the station? Of five types of research, one will be aimed at "increasing fundamental scientific knowledge"; another will be directed toward "enabling future space exploration"; and a third will consist of biotechnology-related experiments to improve human health -- obviously an area of keen interest to pharmaceutical companies. But the other two types are research that will be of direct interest to industry in general -- improvement of industrial processes and product development. (See The Payoff for Industry.) Indeed, commercial development is a major focus of the ISS, so much so that the U.S., which gets portions of the lab space of the other partners in return for providing most of the ISS' infrastructure, is allocating 30% of its share of the station's research capacity specifically for the function. (Life-science research and microgravity research each get 30% as well; engineering technology gets 10%.) Other partners also are expected to emphasize commercial research in their labs. "Our intention is to allocate a substantial amount of our payload accommodation to commercial," indicates Ian Pryke, head of the European Space Agency's Washington office, who points out that the U.S. is "ahead of everybody else" in announcing specific plans for its utilization of the station because it will have the first laboratory in orbit. Europe, which among other things will ferry supplies to the ISS in nine flights of vehicles launched by Arienne rockets, is slated to have its lab, Columbia, attached to the station in 2004. Because its lab will be the first up, the U.S. also is the most active in promoting the station to potential customers. NASA took a notable step in February by announcing its long-awaited prices for space aboard the ISS. The promotion task is difficult, however. A big impediment, observes a report by KPMG LLP, is NASA's lack of a "proactive culture toward commercial and government collaboration." Admits NASA's Tam: "If all we say is 'we're open for business,' we won't get any business. Commercial users fear that [the ISS] will be too expensive and too unreliable, and that they'll have to deal with a bureaucracy that would choke a horse. So we're trying to change the way we deal with customers. We're trying to partner with them rather than treat them as contractors." NASA is working with several potential customers and plans to announce a list of contracts this fall. With the first crew due to live in the station Oct. 30 and the U.S. lab sent aloft in January, that list could expand rapidly. It will have to, if the ultimate goal of turning ownership of the station over to the private sector is to be realized.

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