An article in yesterday's Washington Business incorrctly reported the value of a contract awarded by NASA to Washington-based Spacehab Inc. The contract is worth $184 million. (Published 12/11/90)
For all the scientists and researchers who have been wanting to send experiments into space but haven't had the opportunity, a deal announced last week may make all the difference.
But it's going to make an even bigger difference for Washington-based Spacehab Inc.
Two years ago, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration signed a space systems development agreement with Spacehab that gave the company the ability to load on six space shuttle flights a space habitat module it developed that can carry as many as 50 scientific experiments.
Last week, NASA made the unusual move of purchasing back from Spacehab 200 of the 300 total available slots on those six flights -- most of which will be used for research by NASA's Centers for the Commercial Development of Space.
Experts said the $1.8 million contract, which is the largest instance of NASA purchasing commercial space to conduct its own research, may be the harbinger of the way space research will be done in the future.
"Spacehab is one of the first examples of a new way for NASA to procure space goods and services," said Jeffrey Manber, executive director of the Space Foundation of Washington, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the commercialization of space. "Rather than developing the modules in-house, rather than designing them themselves, the agency is turning to the private sector and saying, 'Yes, we are willing to use this on a commercial basis.' "
The contract likely will have a profound impact on Spacehab, which has been expecting this announcement since March, when NASA solicited bids to provide the agency with research space and Spacehab was the only entry. NASA's stake in the program gives the small private company a boost in its quest to secure more customers and financing.
"What the NASA agreement really did is raise confidence in the user community that flight opportunities would be there," said James Ball, senior vice president for marketing at Spacehab. "We think it's going to accelerate the level of interest among other potential users."
Spacehab's module is expected to fly for the first time in 1992. More than $30 million has been committed to the project, mostly from investors in Japan, Taiwan and Europe. The company expects a commitment from Chase Manhattan Bank for up to $75 million now that NASA has announced its contract, Ball said.
The company has signed four other contracts for scientific "locker" space on the module, which together amount to about $50 million. That figure, however, includes transportation costs -- a portion of the $28 million Spacehab will pay to NASA for each shuttle flight. NASA's contract naturally does not include transportation charges, although it does include provisions such as crew training.
Although the shuttle does not offer ideal conditions for low-gravity experiments because of the vibrations caused by the crew and the use of thrusters, Ball said that among university and industry researchers and scientists, there is a growing demand to conduct experiments in space.
"I don't think there's any doubt that it will supply the environment that is desirable for many experimenters," Ball said.
NASA's sizable commercial commitment has brought some optimism to the industry, which has been shaken by disappointments in the U.S. space program in the last five years.
Manber said most people believe this is a critical step in establishing a space station where experiments can mature for more than a few days and under much better conditions.
In addition, a commercial arrangement such as Spacehab's, Manber said, offers countries that would not be privy to NASA-sponsored research opportunities the chance to participate in this field, and gives NASA's various research centers the opportunity to avoid the regulations that can make procurement contracts difficult.
"The discouraging part is we're still not sure whether we'll be able to duplicate a Spacehab situation again," Manber said. "It took the full resources of the NASA administrator, the space council and the Congress to realize this buy ... and we're still not sure it will work" in the future.
Spacehab was able to secure enough foreign financing to develop the module even without a guarantee that NASA would support the final project to the extent it has, Manber said. It is unclear whether other companies would be able to find investors willing to take that same risk.
"We're still at that point where NASA can make or break a commercial venture," he said.