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Atlantis after sTS-135 landing
Even after the final shuttle landing in July there was a bid to try and keep the shuttles flying commercially. (credit: NASA/KSC)

Chasing unicorns

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Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

- Robert Browning

This issue of The Space Review includes the fifth and final part of a series titled “An enduring value proposition for NASA human spaceflight” that I began in August of last year. My thinking about national security issues had been evolving for a long time but particularly over the previous 18 months. As a result I started with a clear idea of where I was going and progressed speedily through the first few installments.

Commercialization is in my view a natural process by which capabilities developed within the government are transferred into the private sector, when appropriate and when supported by the market.

Then, a completely improbable event occurred. I was approached first by a trusted friend and colleague and then, through him, by a British investor who was in the process of pulling together a good many resources in order to explore whether the Space Shuttles (specifically Endeavour and/or Atlantis) could be returned to service on a purely commercial basis. He wanted my help for what would turn out to be a protracted “feasibility assessment.”

All in all, it was one of the craziest things I’d ever heard.

“You’re doing WHAT?”

I thought about it, plowed through a lot of data, and talked with a lot of people about it for weeks before eventually deciding to support the effort, largely for the following reasons:

The assets: Like many others, I’ve been a participant in or advisor to commercialization and private/public partnerships throughout my space career. Commercialization is in my view a natural process by which capabilities developed within the government are transferred into the private sector, when appropriate and when supported by the market. Public/private partnerships can be particularly exciting as the best of them offer opportunity to leverage private and public investment to benefit both business ventures and the government. From a purely business point of view, the shuttles represented assets with substantial value, both with regard to the physical vehicle and the “brand”. I’d hoped a true commercialization model would emerge beginning years earlier so for me this was a natural. Timing was the problem.

Space-based infrastructure development: The more varied the capabilities to lift, manipulate, service, and retrieve equipment and payloads, the more flexibility there is to develop an extensible space architecture. Retiring the shuttle meant the loss of some unique capabilities. Viewed from a cost model and (as it turned out) from a resource-competition model, the rationale for retirement was clear. However, “clear” does not equate to “preferable”. This effort might have alleviated the first of the constraints (cost) and tried to make a run at the second. Once it became clear that the transition and retirement of the orbiters themselves had not moved past the point of no return, I thought it was worth a shot to see if at least one could be “repurposed”.

The ISS: I was and am concerned about the risk to the International Space Station after the retirement of the shuttle. Coincidentally, not long after the Commercial Shuttle project popped up, a Soyuz-U third stage failed 325 seconds after launch from Baikonur and the resulting explosion rained down upon Siberia pieces of a Progress vehicle bound for the ISS. That event reinforced awareness within the entire community about the fragile chain of dependencies that must function without perturbation to keep the Station intact.

The challenge: What can I say? I like a challenge: the bigger, the better. This was a whopper.

Terms and conditions

Elsewhere, I’ve described the “conditions” under which I agreed to support the effort, largely having to do with whether I could be persuaded there was a viable business case. I had been highly skeptical of previous efforts to commercialize the Space Shuttle. Its high operating costs and one-of-a-kind infrastructure requirements run counter to the kind of management flexibility one seeks in a commercial enterprise.

The pushback we expected in both industry and some quarters of government didn’t materialize.

It was clear from the beginning the technical issues were daunting. On that score, I maintained what I considered a “healthy” skepticism for the entire project; however, we agreed to proceed until we reached a hard stop—and at various points the team of people involved came up with some pretty creative ideas. NASA was very forthcoming about the difficulties involved in what we were discussing but was also open to those discussions, offering help to us as we worked through the process over a period of several weeks. As a part of me began to think it might just be possible, I started referring to Endeavour and Atlantis as “The Unicorns” in meetings and emails—big, white, winged and near-mythical creatures, which could also be said of the effort itself—and to the pursuit of reflight as “The Chase”.

The response

Common wisdom—which is certainly common but rarely wise—had it that we would be pilloried or laughed at all round. We went into all initial meetings and telecons braced for pushback or out-and-out dismissal. But it didn’t happen that way.

Skepticism? Yes. Incredulity? Yes. Folks being too polite rather than direct? Uh-huh. Hard-nosed assessment of the probabilities and problems? You betcha, and these were actively solicited. “All the reasons why not”? No problem finding those.

But the pushback we expected in both industry and some quarters of government didn’t materialize. With a couple of exceptions—those having to do with understandable concerns about the political or business implications of what we were trying to do—we got a lot of help. In the minds of many smart and experienced people who supported shuttle retirement, cost was the determining factor. If that could be removed or mitigated to great degree, then the entire equation changed. The oft-cited reasons for interest in our effort were concern about the ISS and the loss of capability. We knew of course that people had thought about and debated these issues for years. Until we began this effort, however, we had no clue how widespread the desire was for a solution that might grant the shuttles a reprieve.

Not everyone was comfortable with the effort, of course. This was true even for the people involved, from time to time. Personally, in addition to all of the other concerns I continued to be bothered by crew safety issues, eventually seeking out crewmember friends for discussion on that point. But overall, as I noted on my blog, “…the response to the effort was gratifying. Even among those who didn't believe it possible or didn't think it should be possible, many still hoped there was a way. That's a fitting, final epilogue for those incredible machines.”

The end—or not

More about the effort and its conclusion has been written elsewhere, notably, at Suffice it to say that that returning the Space Shuttles to flight is not feasible, although the driver for the final decision was not what people expected at the outset. It was neither vendor issues, nor systems engineering, nor cost. Instead, it was competition for infrastructure and resources. Even if fully paid for, NASA’s commitments to existing and new programs would have resulted in a tremendous burden to the Commercial Shuttle, purely on the basis of resource competition, with everyone needing the same things at the same time. However, the process of turning over all the rocks—a decision on our part from early on—was intensely valuable, and may yet form the basis of future pursuits in space markets.

There are a good many people—myself included—who believe that space is at or near a “tipping point”. As a result, more and more money is coming to the table.

There are doubtless several lessons to be learned from this project. As regards “commercial space”, it is clear that there is a growing awareness in international financial communities that space represents a candidate market for serious investment. The world is awash with capital looking for opportunities. Traditional outlets are no longer attractive, so where is a millionaire or billionaire to put their money? The entrepreneurs who have entered the game so far are people with a long-standing interest in space. One interesting point about this case was that the leader of the entire effort came to this purely from a business point of view. He was not a “space guy” when he began the effort. However, it appears that he is one now on the basis of what he sees as the opportunities in this soon-to-be-emerging market. It will be interesting to see if others follow.

A major change may be in the offing, and that is in the funding sources. While entrepreneurs have led the way up to now, more and more institutional investors are having a look. Savvy players will tell you that anticipating future trends is about “feel” as much as analysis; both are required. Reading emerging markets and predicting their course is less important than positioning investment so as to drive them. At that level, meaningful choices about investment often are not about whether to invest, but when.

There are a good many people—myself included—who believe that space is at or near a “tipping point”. As a result, more and more money is coming to the table. There will doubtless be setbacks, and some of those may last for years. But it feels as though we have finally turned a corner.

So who knows, what things may come?

The last unicorn wasn’t really the last. And maybe she still isn’t.
- Laura Alden