Mr. Tito Comes to Washington – Part 2

By Keith Cowing
May 23, 2001
Filed under

Dennis Tito

SpaceRef Focus On Dennis Tito’s Space Vacation

[Continued from Part 1]

Hotels in Space

Robert Bigelow then spoke of his company’s plans to build a hotel in space. He opened his presentation with a rather unnecessary dig at NASA – suggesting that the letters N – A – S – A stand for “No Access to Space for Americans”. This did not go over well with the audience – or the other panel members.

Bigelow’s plans include the construction of “1 or 2 space ready modules to deploy.” These modules would have 2.5 times the internal volume available on the ISS. This would be accomplished using inflatable technology such as that developed by NASA for the JSC Transhab concept.

In building these module’s Bigelow said that he would like to see a cost breakthrough of a magnitude such that a module could be afforded by companies not just countries.” Bigelow expressed repeated pessimism as to whether he would be allowed to launch these modules from the U.S – or, if he tried to do so abroad, whether the US State or Commerce Departments would allow him to export this technology. In calculating the odds of doing this, he said “the odds are against the deployment of the next space station from U.S. soil.”

In closing, Bigelow demonstrated his interest in trying to get companies to band together to speak with a unified voice: he is sponsoring a workshop next month in Las Vegas that will be attended by companies and space advocacy groups to look at this proposed collaboration.

Changing the Law

Next up was Oklahoma State Senator Gilmer Capps. Capps spoke of legislative initiatives in his state – including legislation that should be signed soon – that allows tax benefits to investors on start up space companies. Often times, these new companies have ideas, but not a lot of revenue. As such, with limited net profit, tax breaks really aren’t as great a stimulus as they would be for larger companies. The Oklahoma legislation would allow the investors in these companies to benefit from these tax breaks instead – thus serving as a stimulus for them to invest. Federal legislation with a very similar intent is due to be introduced by Rep. Ken Clavert (R-CA) soon.

Earlier SpaceRef Stories:

  • Earth’s First Self-Financed Astronaut (Tito Interview)

  • Dennis Tito Begins His Space Vacation

  • Dennis Tito’s Space Vacation is GO

  • NASA Holds Press Conference on the Dennis Tito Issue

  • Dennis Tito’s Flight to Space Station Hits Major Snag – with NASA

  • Eric Anderson from Space Adventures then spoke followed by Tom Rogers, from the Space Transportation Association. Anderson spoke of the surprising interest people had in his company’s ideas for space tourism and the wilingess to put down money so as to reserve seats aboard suborbital rockets that are still on the drawing boards.

    Anderson is quite certain that there is a huge potential market for space tourism waiting to be tapped. This was echoed by the next speaker. Rogers cited a survey done by the well-known Yankelovitch polling firm. It sought to assess the interest among the traveling public (people who go some where, stay for a while, and then return home) – a population estimated to number 130 million in the U.S. The sample population provided some interesting results. One third of this population is interested in travelling into space. 7.5% of them were willing and able to pay $100,000 – or more for the trip. When applied to the travelling public as a whole, this would represent just under one million potential space tourists with $100,000 (or more) in their pockets.

    Rogers moved to a theme brought up earlier by Buzz Aldrin: “Seven years after the launch of Sputnik the first money was being made from communication satellites in space. 40 yeas after Gagarin’s flight NO money is being made from sending humans into space.” He paused and asked “Were people REALLY that much smarter back then than they are now?”

    Rogers spoke of market sizes and their ability to cause prices to drop. Right now NASA flies 5 shuttle missions or so a year at a cost of $500 million each. The base budget is set and is somewhat independent to a great part on the number of flight after a half dozen or so. Rogers asked what would happen if the marginal cost – i.e. the additional funds above and beyond the basic Shuttle Program budget were used to fly an additional 5 missions. This marginal cost is estimated between $80 and $100 million per flight. If this were done, and seats were made available for sale, Rogers suggested that this could cut the overall per seat price by up to 40% simply by increasing the supply and charging people to ride in those additional seats.

    NASA’s View

    While Dennis Tito was determined to fly in space, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin was equally determined to prevent Tito from doing so. Throughout the saga, Goldin’s determination was only matched by Tito’s. Eventually, Tito won – and Goldin did not like it. This personalization of the whole affair by Goldin led to the overall tone of his agency’s response.

    Prospace’s Marc Schlather characterized the panelists he often assembled as “jackals” in their response to NASA. The difficult task of facing the jackals was left to Mike Hawes, Deputy Associate Administrator of the Office of Space Flight. Hawes was obviously aware of the pack of jackals – pleasant as they were being this day – as assembled around him.

    Hawes said that this has been “an interesting few months”. He said that NASA is ” trying to deal with what message this gives us – and how to position the ISS – and the agency in response.”

    Hawes went on to describe ongoing activities between the U.S .and the ISS partner nations to assess criteria for the different categories of people who will be visiting the ISS – what their skills are, what they will be doing, and how they will be sponsored. He suggested that despite established criteria, that “each instance will be something different.”

    “The dinosaur (i.e. NASA) is moving” Hawes said. He expects that these criteria will be in place and released sometime in June 2001. He said that the U.S. action alone would not be enough – and that policy debates will need to be carried out in all of the partner nations.

    Hawes echoed some of Tumlinson’s earlier remarks by saying that “we are building a research lab – not a hotel. However some think it can do both things.” Hawes said that the advent of the ISS gives people an actual destination in space and that a debate now needs to begin as to how to manage this asset such that it can handle the “business travelers – and others.”

    The Public’s View

    Pat Dasch from the NSS spoke next. When asked what the reaction was from her society’s membership she replied that she and Ad Astra editor Frank Sietzen had done over a hundred interviews as a result of Tito’s flight. The most common question from reporters had to do with Tito’s personal wealth and how this allowed regular folks to identify with him.

    Dasch said that her society’s members were saying “the door is now open – what can we do?” She expressed the hope that the criteria to be released this summer are important and that they need to be in place. “We don’t want to see NASA embarrassed [again] as it was [this time]”. She added that the impending release of the NGO report (a non governmental organization that is being proposed as a way to manage U.S. utilization of the ISS) this summer would also be important – and that there was the hope on her society’s part that this could be the start of an effort to get NASA out of ISS operations management with a possible (eventual) hand off to the private sector.

    When Do We Get to Go?

    Last to speak was Alan Ladwig, former NASA Associate Administrator for Policy and Plans and a long time space tourism advocate. Ladwig revisited the NASA programs to put journalists, teachers, and other citizen in space in the 1980’s – a program he ran. The impetus for these program arose from a 1982 task force report that said it was appropriate to fly people (non-astronauts) on the Shuttle if there was a clear reason to do so – and that flying individuals so as to allow them to communicate the experience of space flight was a clear and valid reason. Ladwig noted that this was happening barely a year after the Shuttle first flew – and already NASA was thinking that it was OK to move outside the astronaut corps.

    Had this program not been curtailed by the Challenger accident, he said that there could have been 2 to 3 flight opportunities for citizens every year. While he was accepting applications, Ladwig said that his team noticed a number of complaints from people asking why there were constraints on who could apply i.e. journalists and teachers. He said the bulk of those complaints came from kids and senior citizens who wanted to go.

    As he did research into historical precedents for this effort he came across letters that were sent to rocket pioneer Robert Goddard – all wanting to fly his rocket to one place or another. A few years later the Hayden Planetarium set up a program and received 30,000 letters from people who wanted to travel into space. Cards were sent to these people as a result. Ladwig said that a number of people sent copies of these cards along with their applications to NASA’s program asking “When can I turn them in?

    Ladwig cited another example – the PanAm Moon flight reservations in the late 1960’s wherein 93,000 people signed up and got cards. This promotion got a hefty boost when a Pan AM moon shuttle appeared in the film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Once again, people writing to Ladwig at NASA sent copies of these cards as well asking “When can I turn them in?”

    Throughout the program, Ladwig said it was very easy to see the passion with which so many people wanted to fly in space. He said, that the Challenger accident served an unfortunate role – it gave all of the doubters reason to say “See, it WAS too early.” He went on to cite the fact that it is quite an obvious trend when it comes to flying a new type of individual in space. The test pilots resented flying scientists, then they resented flying women and monitories, then corporate astronauts and so on. Each time, the status quo sought to limit access to space.

    At this point Ladwig’s frustration with NASA came to the surface. With regard to the flight of Dennis Tito he said “NASA did not use this as an opportunity. Instead of bitching about things they should have enlisted Tito to tell people what the ISS was going to do. At the time, the only news that was being heard about the ISS was a $4 billion cost overrun.”

    Ladwig went on to criticize John Glenn saying that Glenn should get the chutzpah award for the way he criticized Tito’s flight – “especially after how Glenn got his seat.” The one bright upside of Glenn’s flight, Ladwig said, is that Christa McAuliff’s back up, Barbara Morgan, was made a full-fledged astronaut. In closing he said that NASA should reconsider the program to fly citizens in space noting that “you can always find a reason why NOT to do something.”

    Summary and commentary

    Few people at NASA will dispute the notion that the goal of what they are doing is to facilitate the expansion of humanity into space – and then out into the cosmos. To many this means the personal presence of humans in all of these places – not just their robotic emissaries. During Tito’s mission, many of the comments from astronauts – past and present – while still towing the official NASA line – also alluded to this desire. They expressed the desire that everyone somehow be able to experience the wonders of space – personally – even if the words used were those of a no-nonsense test pilot unaccustomed to expressing their true feelings in public.

    Many at NASA openly admit that Tito’s flight caught them off guard thus causing all of the problems on Earth – and in space. Alas, part of being caught off guard however was due to NASA not wanting to pay attention to shifting paradigms in the first place – thus setting itself up for the unpleasant confrontations that preceded Tito’s flight. To be certain a lot of this had to do with Dan Goldin personally. However, much more of this had to do with NASA’s corporate culture – one that is as skilled and visionary as it is conservative and stubborn.

    Dennis Tito, as many people in the room remarked, was the first person to put himself into space with his own financial resources. He will most certainly not be the last. Right now, NASA is the main traffic cop when it comes to deciding who can go into space. This role was appropriate when spacecraft were being developed and used for the first time or when clearly hazardous operations were being carried out.

    Now that the transition from the extreme and experimental to the routine and mundane has begun in space, NASA’s position on this matter needs to change accordingly. Not to do so will be to stifle the core of the dreams that propel all who work to explore space: the notion that space is for everyone to share and enjoy.

    SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.