- Press Release
- August 8, 2022
Space Tourism Hearings on Capitol Hill
Space Tourist Dennis Tito was on Capitol Hill again last month. Once again he was describing his experiences aboard the International Space Station. This time his audience was the U.S. Congress. NASA was there too. Somewhere in between NASA’s views and those of Mr. Tito, a consensus was reached wherein everyone agreed that more “regular people” should be able to travel into space. The question that remained at the end of the hearing was not if – or when – but rather “how” this should happen – and what the respective roles of government and the private sector should be.
Alas, as is often the case with any NASA hearing these days, all involved soon found themselves diverted to exchanging volleys over NASA’s budgetary woes and what this means for the eventual capability of the International Space Station.
Testifying were Dennis Tito, Mike Hawes, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Station, Rick Tumlinson, President of the Space Frontier Foundation, and Apollo 11 astronaut and ShareSpace founder, Buzz Aldrin.
Dennis Tito was the first witness to speak. Reading from a prepared statement, he described his trip into space as being “the highlight of his life” and expressed a hope that others could experience what he had seen. As such, he said one way this could be accomplished is for NASA to re-start the old civilians in space program and that Russia be allowed – and encouraged – to sell more Soyuz seats to paying passengers.
With regard to his accommodations aboard the ISS, Tito said that he feels that there is ample room on the ISS to increase the crew size to 6. He said that the ISS is large enough and roomy enough such that he felt he could have stayed there indefinitely. He joked that accommodations were such that he could have gotten a call from Dan Goldin saying “we didn’t want you to go – but now we don’t want you to come back.”
Mike Hawes opened by quoting his prepared statement, saying that he was very proud of the Space Station and Space Shuttle teams, noting that they had worked very hard to bring a new human outpost in space online. Despite recent successes – including Mr. Tito’s more or less eventless trip, Hawes cautioned that the ISS “is still a construction site”. In referring to the controversy surrounding Tito’s flight, he noted that the international partnership that embodies the ISS program “was not originally intended to respond to swiftly changing events”. None the less, the principals involved in setting crew standards and discussing Tito’s worthiness to fly met 3 times in person and several other times by telecon to come up with the procedures for individuals to fly to the ISS. Hawes said that he expects to release these requirements to the public later this Summer.
Regarding the hearing’s intended topic – i.e. space tourism – Hawes said that this is something that “resonates with many Americans”. He noted that he had received multiple letters questioning NASA’s role in the Tito trip and that NASA had been paying attention. As to what NASA’s role should be in the emerging space tourism industry, Hawes said that NASA’s goal should be for NASA not to drive or control this industry – but rather to provide a catalyst for the private sector to develop the market.
Buzz Aldrin read from his prepared statement saying that he wants to use space tourism as a catalyst for the overall human expansion to space. Since he feels that “space policy and space architecture are inextricably linked” he believes that the existing Shuttle-based system results in the current, somewhat constrained and expensive government transport mode we find ourselves stuck with today. Aldrin said that he feels that the needs of commercial space industry should be central as we design the next generation of human space vehicles. Aldrin was referring specifically to NASA’s new SLI – Space Launch Initiative- program. Aldrin suggested that the Shuttle could start the movement towards encouraging a new human transportation systems by flying passengers on the Space Shuttle – possibly by using SLI funds to work on some technical issues – and that this experience could be used to help the private sector develop new vehicles expressly for the purpose of space tourism.
Aldrin wasn’t too thrilled with how he feels NASA has been handling the idea of flying non-professional astronauts into space. He said “Lockheed Martin and Boeing have formed a monopoly to run the Shuttle” (USA – United Space Alliance). Even monopolies can have good ideas. However when this monopoly surfaced ideas for commercial passengers on the Shuttle, NASA had the president of the monopoly fired.” Aldrin then went on to say to the members of the Committee that he wanted to ” tell you what NASA has done to ShareSpace. We responded to a HEDS call for proposals – but the money was no longer there and had been hijacked to meet other needs. More than 150 proposals were submitted – despite a statement from NASA that the money for the initial work was in place.” Aldrin went on to express his frustration with NASA and the status quo and the stifling effect this has upon nascent commercial space tourism efforts.
Rick Tumlinson, president of the Space Frontier Foundation spoke next. Tumlinson grappled with the term “tourism” as it has been applied to flights such as Tito’s suggesting that “Space tourism does not really begin to capture what is really going on. We need to understand exactly what is going on otherwise we tend to trivialize his trip into space. This is the beginning of a wave. Flying people into space may be the “killer app” – the money maker we have all been waiting for.” Tumlinson then turned to the criticism leveled at Tito by some people in the government as being “an insult – especially the questioning of his patriotism.” He then turned to Tito and said “We want to teach the aerospace community what is all about. You are ‘us’ and I congratulate you.
Tumlinson then turned to the role of government in space vis-à-vis space tourism and other commercial ventures suggesting that it should be akin to the Hippocratic oath – to “do no harm”. He said that “the people who run the ISS should know that the people knocking on their airlocks are not their enemies. They are the people they have been working for.”
Tumlinson said that he feels that the proper role of government is to “create a level playing field” wherein the private sector can exploit near Earth space – with NASA leading the charge in the exploration of the rest of the solar system saying that “it is time for Lewis and Clark to move on.” “It was not Mr. Tito who was in the wrong place- NASA was. NASA’s astronauts should be out exploring the solar system.” Returning the Lewis and Clarke analogy, Tumlinson said “Mr. Tito’s mission was like as a high speed tour boat circling their small canoe.”
As to where the space travelers who follow Tito will go, Tumlinson said “the ISS is not a hotel.” Nor should this be a visitors aboard a submarine-like effort (an allusion to the recent collision by a passenger carrying submarine and a Japanese tour boat earlier this year). Tumlinson said “The idea is not to change the ISS into a hotel – rather to develop a civilian facility to co-orbit with the ISS.” As to how the access to space for non-professional astronauts is to be facilitated, Tumlinson had some problems with giving away seats on the Shuttle. ” Every seat on a Shuttle that is given away is one that cannot be sold. Sure, give some seats away to reporters or a poet. But there has to be a better solution.”
In closing, Tumlinson urged the Committee not to dismiss space tourism, saying that “the people ‘get’ space – just ask the guy at the 7-11. They don’t need to be sold on the idea.”
Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened up the first round of questions musing about how to select people to go into space. “Could we have a lottery to give away that seat on the Shuttle?” he asked.
Buzz Aldrin replied that he thinks that “we need to open opportunity up to a wide variety of people. These don’t need to be a specially qualified people.’ Alluding to the risks associated with flying non-professionals, Aldrin refereed to the “mindset brought about by Challenger accident.” He felt that the lingering perceptions of risk “could be offset by flying a professional communicator (i.e. a journalist)”
Tito said “I thought about a lottery – but it doesn’t seem workable to me. Does the person who wins the lottery automatically become qualified to go? What happens if they are not qualified?”. Rohrabacher reminded the audience that California had just had a large lottery drawing for a top prize of $121 million in California. “We could have had six Dennis Tito’s in space” he joked.
Tumlinson then reminded Rohrabacher “in 1989 some guys ran a space lottery and were thrown in jail.” “We have a way of doing this” he said: “game shows. A lottery would work to.’ Tumlinson then returned to his uneasiness with giving away seats on a Shuttle saying “that is a socialist solution.”
Aldrin then spoke saying that when the flight rate is low – 1-4 shuttle flights a year a year a lottery might not work. “But when the rate is once a week – then other means of selection are not as efficient as a lottery might be.” He added that whatever process(es) are used that “we need to broaden this opportunity out from just a small class of people to a larger selection of different types of people.”
Mike Hawes noted that Dan Goldin has asked his Chief of Staff (and White House liaison) Courtney Stadd to review all NASA commercial policies including NASA’s Space Flight Participant Program. As for how regular citizens should be selected to fly Hawes aid “I don’t think it is NASA who should be the selector – there are other bodies in the private sector who should do this selection.”
Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) began his questions by asking Rick Tumlinson if he recalled a lottery run by a commercial group in Europe where an English woman, Helen Sherman won, and eventually visited Mir. Gordon said ” No one remembers that.” Tumlinson said “if Tito flew to Mir that would not have helped the space tourism industry as much as his going to the ISS has – or will.” Tumlinson added that the controversy surrounding Tito’s trip provided “a perfect media opportunity.”
Gordon then said that Dennis Tito had made a “rather thought provoking statement” – that the ISS could support 6 person crew with existing life support. He noted that “under the Administration’s budget we’re only looking at supporting 3 people. 3 people only allow you to maintain it – but not do any science. Mr. Hawes, is he correct?”
Hawes replied that Tito’s experience was only a week long. He said that the current long-duration crew of 3 and a visiting Shuttle or Soyuz crew can be supported with current the capability – but only by utilizing a pre-planned surge capability. According to Hawes “to sustain a larger full time crew, we’d need more capability. We’d need to have advanced environmental and life support system in place. That would provide the capability to support a 7 person crew capability.” Hawes added that this would included additional Oxygen generation, CO2 scrubbing, and habitation facilities.
Tito then spoke. He said “one aspect of the 8 months of training I had was detailed training about the Elektron [water hydrolysis] system that provides Oxygen in Service Module which has the capacity to support 6 people. The Vozdukh [Carbon dioxide removal] system can also handle 6 people. ” Tito noted that ‘there was no use of the [supplemental] Carbon dioxide scrubber canisters [LiOH] or Oxygen [SFOG] candles when I was on board. I did not like the idea of those oxygen canisters – since one of the caught on fire on Mir. My experience is that it is sustainable. There is plenty of hab space in the FGB for extended period – no different that the small area that Susan Helms uses in the lab module. In zero-g you can set up shop anywhere.”
Gordon replied that he has been “critical of the Administration for not adequately funding the ISS. If you only have 3 people you can’t get anything done. I would like to have this issue discussed.”
Rohrabacher then put the apparent disconnect in perspective “Mr. Hawes says that the life support system cannot support 6 people for a long period of time. Mr. Tito says it can. Tito has been there.” Hawes replied that “all the indications we have had with Russia are that the systems are not sized for the long term support of 6 people. If we went past 3 or 4 we would need have things augmented. Dennis’ perspective is obviously different.”
Rohrabacher asked again “we can go up to 6 people for a short period of time – but not for long period of time?” Tito – if you look at the required parameters … Rohrabacher jumped in abruptly “Mr. Hawes is saying that extra activity and resupply are required.” Hawes then said “the Russians say that it could support 3 – 4 long term crew but not beyond that.” Rohrabacher said “are you saying that after a short period of time you would need more capability?” Hawes said “you could augment it – but you’d need more hardware.”
Gordon then said “I am bothered by some things. I am concerned about the information that has been provided – you say that this is what the Russians have told us. I would hope that NASA could give us a better answer than this.” Hawes replied “the life support systems on ISS are Russian-provided.” In addition to the life support and habitation augmentations Hawes previously noted to support 6 person crew long term he said that “we also need additional crew return capability.”
House Science Committee Chair Sherry Boehlert (R-NY) then said that he felt that Tito is “a national resource with an experience that none of us have ever had.” Addressing Tito he asked ” How much time spent with NASA since you came back?
Tito replied “I had a breakfast meeting with Mike Hawes today.” Boehlert asked “How long have you been back?” Tito said “one and a half months” Boehlert then asked “how much time have spent since you came back in direct discussions with NASA?” Tito answered crisply “Zero.”
Boehlert then asked “why hasn’t NASA reached out to Mr. Tito? You would think there is much to be learned from Mr .Tito about his unique experiences.” Mike Hawes said “I agree with you. That is what we did today. This was not a social call. I was appointed by Mr. Goldin to talk with Tito to arrange a mission debriefing with Tito. This is a very unique experience that we need to understand.”
Boehlert said “better late than never. I suppose we should be satisfied with that. Some of the things he experienced can fade. It seems to me that someone should have done this sooner.” Hawes said “we are looking at our calendars and putting a team together to do that.”
Boehlert then turned to Tito and said ” Seats [in space] are so limited. Why a seat for a sightseer instead of a scientist?” Tito replied “When you talk about the Space Shuttle and missions to the ISS, some Shuttle missions only have 5 people. Much of what Shuttle crews do is construction-related. If a seat is available it could be used by someone to relate space back to the American public. Yes there is value to science. There is also cultural value in space. This is not an all or none issue. There should be some balance. That is what the American public wants as a result of my flight. We should give the taxpayers something more than we have.”
Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) opened his questions by saying that “no one likes to admit when they are wrong. When I first learned of this – I was very hesitant. I don’t think that tourists should fly to a space station that is under construction. Yet I can see that his flight led to more enthusiasm for space traveler.” Lampson went on to say that he is “submitting legislation that will cover space tourism.”
Editor’s note: Lampson has since submitted legislation, H.R. 2443 “Space Tourism Promotion Act of 2001”.
Lampson then turned to a 14 April 2001 AP article wherein Tito said “Dennis Tito is probably the best person to set the example” for others to follow. Lampson asked “should flights go to the highest bidder – or should it be open to everyone?” Tito said “I agree with NASA. There need to be standards and people need to be qualified. Given that someone meets these criteria then the seat should go to the highest bidder.”
Lampson asked Mike Hawes about earlier statements by Dan Goldin that NASA would bill the Russians for additional costs associated with Mr. Tito’s presence on the ISS. “Has NASA completed a cost audit?” Hawes replied “We have not yet completed that. That will be done when this crew returns. Because of the issues we were already working with computers at the time – we think that any cost impact will turn out to be rather small.”
Lampson said that “NASA talked about an impact on ISS operations – and that activity should be deferred while Tito was on the ISS.” Hawes replied that “the key high activity events treadmill repair, activation of the racks, and arm checkout were delayed. We removed them from the timeline – and let the crew and ground team determine what could be added back.”
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) asked Mike Hawes about Spacehab’s Enterprise Module and the fact that it could provide support for 3 additional crew. He asked “what is your assessment of having a commercial area on ISS. Will NASA consider using Enterprise?”
Hawes replied “we have talked with both the U.S. [Spacehab] and Russian [RSC Energia] partners in the Enterprise project. We have assessed the module. It is designed to be a replacement for the Russian Docking and Stowage module that they are supposed to provide under the terms of the ISS MOU. It does do that job. They have proposed to provide additional life support equipment and Soyuz vehicles as part of the package. Those are reasonable and potentially attractive items. How to manage the commercial arrangement when there are no extra space dollars in the ISS program is the challenge. We think that it could provide an interim capability.”
Weldon then said that he had “done some math”. He said “Buzz Aldrin spoke about 2 paid members on every shuttle flight. NASA has talked about a $4 billion cost overrun. 7 Shuttle missions per year, with 2 paying customers at $20 million each would be around $280 million a year. Over 5 years that would amount to $1.4 billion – or 35 % of the projected cost overrun. They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I have been looking around Washington to find $4 billion. It is not easy to find. Why shouldn’t Congress look into this?”
Mike Hawes replied that flying passengers on the Shuttle is not necessarily a positive cost trade. “Clearly the flight of someone on a shuttle is more than $20 million.” He said.
Weldon replied “-we are strapped for cash. How do we make up for the $4 billion? Buzz Aldrin came up with a way to make up for 35% of that cost problem.” He went on to say “we establish policy. NASA carries it out. To me – this seems very attractive.”
Hawes replied that most of the Shuttle assembly missions still go into space at their maximum weight capacity. “Adding people means that something gets thrown off.” He said. “That is a trade.” Weldon concluded by saying that he’d like to know what the cost would be to fly people on the Shuttle.
Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) began his questions by asking Tito about the impact of his mission on the public “Mr. Tito -you talked about your mission as having captured the attention of millions of people around the world. My office has not been overwhelmed with mail on this topic. I have watched a lot of reality TV. On what do you base your assertion that people have been positively affected by your flight?”
Dennis Tito replied ” some polls showed that over 80% of people surveyed supported the flight. The media response – different TV shows. I was on Yahoo and saw that there 5,000 different articles. To me that indicated that through the media that there was some interest.”
Etheridge replied “If this has indeed tweaked the public’s interest – what do you think it will take to maintain this interest in space among the public? Rick Tumlinson said that and effort should be made to keep in front of public that this about getting them to go into it – and to open it up to them.” Buzz Aldrin was that there is a need to investigate the sorts of transportation systems that would allow large volumes [habitats] to be launched to augment the ISS that “this could lead to high value traffic”. Aldrin suggested that if NASA was “seen to have this interest” that it might motivate people to think that there was interest in space tourism.
Dennis Tito said “I always thought astronauts to be super-qualified people. One of the things that could maintain interest [among the public] would be having ordinary people going up who can communicate their experiences.”
Rep. Etheridge then asked Tito “you said that there could be a 6 person crew. How could we do this in light of the Iran Non-proliferation Act. Does NASA think it an buy more spacecraft and comply at the same time?”
Tito replied that this question was “getting into an area that I am far from qualified to answer. It would be nice too work out an arrangement where the Russians move in a direction more of our liking.” Mile Hawes said “there are challenges in trying to buy Soyuz spacecraft. – the Iran Non-proliferation Act provisions may help or hinder that.”
Rep. Rohrabacher then began a second round of questions by citing the need to overcome ISS challenge. “Mr. Boehlert was right: you [Tito] have insights.” He then said “I am dismayed that NASA took this long to debrief Mr. Tito to see what insights he as.” He then asked Tito “do you think ISS can have a crew of 6 with the current equipment that provides life support?”
Tito replied (again) that “the systems the produce oxygen and carbon dioxide use electricity and are regenerative. Mr. Hawes is correct: we need to look at issues of redundancy. There are backups. Progress vehicles carry Oxygen. You may have to beef up the redundancy. I am not saying that I have all the answers. “
Rohrabacher then said “I don’t want ego problems at NASA to get in the way of this dialog. Where’s the problem?”. Mike Hawes replied “I just learned about this in our discussion with Dennis this morning.”
Rohrabacher shot back angrily ” I notified NASA about this weeks ago. Maybe no one passed it on to you.” Hawes replied “clearly there is a misunderstanding. The Russians do have some back up capabilities. They have Lithium hydroxide scrubbing and Oxygen canisters …” Rohrabacher interrupted” Those systems provide enough life support for 6 astronauts?” Hawes replied I cannot validate that they do this over the long term.”
Rohrabacher then demanded “I want that in 24 hours.” Hawes replied “I will try….” Again Rohrabacher interrupted ” very important decisions are being made in the next few days.” Hawes replied ” the same systems were used on Mir. They used back up capabilities to augment regular loads.”
Dennis Tito said “on Mir they had lower solar power and could not run the systems at the 6 person level. The ISS has surplus power.” Rohrabacher replied “the extra power may be reserved for something else.” Rohrabacher then went on to say “I would hope for an answer. Can the life support systems support 6 people over a long period of time? – and what sort of backup is needed. If this is not the case- how much will it cost to upgrade the systems Vs building the hab module. ” He closed by repeating “I know that NASA new about this.”
Editor’s note: it is interesting to note that while Rep. Rohrabacher badgered NASA’s Mike Hawes on the crew support issue throughout these hearings, being needlessly rude at several points, not once did Rohrabacher challenge Mr. Tito’s technical assertions about the ISS’ capabilities or ask him to substantiate his technical claims with proof with a 24 hour deadline.
Buzz Aldrin then spoke up. “The committee should consider – increasing ISS personnel without relying on the Russians.” One possible solutions could be a “long duration [Shuttle] orbiter. [Former Skylab astronaut] Owen Garriott has done work on this as has United Space Alliance.” As for how to pay for this Aldrin said “More than $4 billion in SLI funds [are available] that could be used in a way to enhance our launch capability. Skylab gave us a good idea on how to use large volumes. Perhaps a Shuttle External Tank could be used to increase the size.” He added that options to augment ISS capabilities without the Russians could also include development of a heavy lift launch vehicle.
Rep. Gordon the asked Dennis Tito if he heard what Mike Hawes said about the Russian’s experience with Mir – and that it is the Russian who “are the ones who are saying that they will not provide this sustained support. Have you had discussions that are contrary to this?” Tito replied “Yes. During my training I learned about the Elektron oxygen generator and Vozdukh carbon dioxide removal systems. In my notes they told me that they could support 6 people.” Gordon then asked “if the Russians say to NASA that we can’t have more than 3 people would you have reason to doubt them? Tito did not answer yes or no but replied simply “I have already talked to them.”
Rep. Weldon steered the discussion back to the hearing’s original topic; space tourism. He addressed Dennis Tito saying “people need to stop thinking of space as being exotic and far away. Do you consider yourself as being like the first person to buy a plane ticket?”
Tito replied “when I first had a dream 40 years ago I certainly did not think I would be the first. The reason I did this was not because I wanted to get into the Guinness Book of Records. The name of the first person to buy the first plane ticket is long forgotten. So will my name.”
Weldon then return to the ISS life support issue asking Tito “were you saying that based upon technical information the Russians gave to you that systems can handle 6 people?” Tito replied “under normal circumstances they can handle 6 people. If all 6 people were exercising that would add additional demands [on the life support systems].”
Weldon the asked Mike Hawes “is there more to this than carbon dioxide, oxygen – its water, food and other things like heat?” Hawes replied that there are the logistics issues and that “everything needs to be factored into the balance. There is a point where having more crew makes sense. There is a point before that when the ISS is under utilized. Clearly we’d like the crew to do research.”
Weldon said “If you have 6 people then you’d have 9 people short term? Hawes replied “yes – but the Shuttle assists as well. Just before [Tito’s] Soyuz flight arrived the departing Shuttle pumped up space station’s oxygen content.”
Tito suggested that some f the temporary surges in life support requirements could be revolved by having people go up and leave with the same vehicle. That was there would not be a need to have a transition with three additional people.
Rep. Weldon then asked Mike Hawes “is the issue about back-up for life support? Hawes replied ” Yes. On ISS you want to be able to sustain the ISS so that you have margin and redundancy. We need to reassess these numbers.”
Rep. Lampson then said that “the people who operate the Space Shuttle are professionals. The odds of losing a Shuttle are 1 in 350. Do you think these good enough odds for non-professionals? Buzz Aldrin replied ” yes I do. Dennis Tito said ” when I made the decision to fly I calculated that I had a 1% chance of not making it back alive. Of the 415 people who went into space we lost 11 – that’s 3%. It was like playing Russian roulette with a hundred barrel gun – and that is why I signed off on things.”
Lampson asked “who should set safety and reliability standards?” Rick Tumlinson replied that ” government has a role to set standards. This is the same as with cruise ship or experimental aircraft.” In placing the risk and lure of going into space into perspective Tumlinson said ” People climb (and die on) Mt. Everest all the time but it does not stop the flow of people who want to climb it.”
“Lampson then asked “what will it take to get the private sector to make a real commitment to space tourism?” Buzz Aldrin suggested “I think a clear indication that the government is setting a course to make a commitment of getting average citizens in space.” Rick Tumlinson said “This is already happening. We are 2 to 3 years away from another space station. Robert Bigelow is building one. Mini-Mir is being discussed. This issue will surface again. ”
Rep. Lampson asked Tito “you state, that with the sole exception of communication satellites, that investment in space has been pathetic. Do you think that the investment community been irrational in their behavior?” Tito replied ” I think that the investment community has been irrational in evaluating dot com things. I do not think there is enough data to say that space tourism is viable. I will be looking at this.” Lampson then asked ” Are you recommending [space] investment to your clients? Tito replied succinctly “absolutely not.”
Although the hearing was held to discuss space tourism the Committee members spent a substantial amount of time casting doubt on NASA’s assessment of the number of people the ISS can support. They also spent time grasping for ways to try and cover the growing ISS cost overrun. Indeed, Rep. Rohrabacher closed the hearing by saying that the private sector needs to be looked at as a source for ideas and assets to help with the ISS cost overrun.
As for the topic of space tourism, the witnesses and Committee all seemed to be in general agreement that space tourism is something that was desirable – perhaps even inevitable. Mr. Tito may be the first person to self-finance his own trip into space – but he was not the first “regular person” to make such a trip. None the less, he certainly will not be the last non-professional in space.
The real question lies in whether NASA needs to encourage this developing business or simply stay out of the way and let it develop free of government interference. While some in the hearing room wished to have government help pave the way, others felt that the government should get partially into the business of flying paying customers itself – ostensibly to help offset ISS cost overruns.
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