[Editor’s Note: This post has been lingering in my drafts folder for almost three months now, and I feel it’s time to air it out and try to finish it again.]
Here’s an interesting thought experiment:
What if NASA say decided to auction off it’s share of the ISS to any legitimate buyer (ie either US firms, or firms located in any of the ISS participant countries), and the proceeds of that auction to pay “damages” to ISS partners whose hardware we would no longer be launching. If NASA wanted to use ISS for future projects, they could rent space from whoever the new owner was. That would allow NASA to then end the shuttle program and the ISS program, thus freeing up a bunch of money per year (as mentioned in my previous post).
If they went a step further, and auctioned off the shuttles and their requires support infrastructure (or at least offered to lease that infrastructure at a reasonable rate), that might be even better. With the fact that there are some ISS payloads (as well as the Hubble repair mission and a few other missions) that really would be very expensive if not impossible to do without the Shuttle, that company would have at least some firm demand in the near term. Since they’d now be a real private company instead of just being a NASA contracting firm, they could likely restructure their workforce to whatever made the most sense (ie likely being able to fire off a lot of the dead-weight, cut things back to single shifts, etc). I wouldn’t be surprised if the cost per flight went up to $1B per launch, but if the Russians, Japanese, and Europeans want all of their modules flown (including ones that won’t fly anyway under NASA’s current definition of “completion” for the ISS), they would then have the ability to do so. They’d have to spend some of their own money in the process, but at least this way they could guarantee their stuff would fly. If NASA is no longer paying the yearly maintenance costs for the Shuttle program, and is only having to pay the marginal cost for the launches that they would specifically need (say for a Hubble repair mission), then it wouldn’t really matter if the Shuttle were still flying in 2020 let alone 2010.
Ian Kluft of Stratofox was mentioning to me that in addition to the ISS mission control centers in Moscow and at JSC, there is one additional place already setup to handle ISS mission control functions–Onizuka AFB (aka the Blue Cube for Silicon Valley residents). Fortuitously, this place is not only on an AFB that has been on the BRAC list for a while, but is also located within about of 5 minute drive of Google’s campus in Mountain View. Even if Onizuka couldn’t be sold or leased outright to a commercial ISS operator, they’re right in the heart of Silicon Valley, so coming up with some way to tie-into that facility’s communication system in such a way to allow the ISS operator to securely control their portion of the ISS from their company’s own campus is probably doable. Not to mention that a private company is likely going to find a much more efficient way of doing the earthside “mission control” functions than the current NASA method.
Here are a few additional miscelaneous thoughts:
- NASA probably ought to make the auction deal contingent on them funding the COTS program to completion, because that would both help decrease the marginal cost if NASA ever wants/needs to do future projects on the space station after the auction, and it would also sweeten the pot on the auction since it would make the station a lot cheaper to operate and maintain. NASA would have a huge incentive to finish COTS because without commercial crew/cargo transfer, any usage of the station after this auction would either end up having to pay the full cost of a shuttle flight (which would be expensive), or require a renegotiation of the Iran Nonproliferation Act. If NASA is having to pay the price of each shuttle flight on a marginal base, they’re likely to only use it when they absolutely have to. And when stuck with a choice between funding US companies or buying foreign services, I think there’s a very good chance that the COTS providers would win.
- With NASA no longer owning a stake in the ISS, the “Visiting Vehicles” rules could likely be rewritten in a more reasonable manner. If all the vehicles that currently service the station have to be “grandfathered” in because they don’t meet all the rules, the rules are probably unrealistically restrictive. While many of the current rules may actually make sense, I think the ISS partnership countries wouldn’t mind revisiting and rerationalizing the rules.
The problems with commercializing the space station are similar to the problems that sent the LEO comsat companies into bankruptcy: high development costs, expensive and unreliable transportation, and badly bungling the actual customer end of the program. There’s no way that NASA will ever recoup the full cost of the space station development. It just costs far more than it’s ever been worth. What NASA really needs to turn the station program around is the something like the bankruptcy option that Iridium and several of the LEO comsat companies used. If they sold the station and access to required support infrastructure on the market, even if they only got pennies on the dollar for their original investment, and if the commercial operator were free to renegotiate the Visiting Vehicles rules, and operate the station in the most efficient manner possible, with NASA not having any more say in how things are run than any other customer would…then there might just be a chance to make something useful out of our investment.
ISS and the Shuttle were badly executed ideas. They’ve cost far more than they are really worth, and the only way going forward that I can see to really tap what value is left in them is some sort of “bankruptcy” style auction. What do you all think?