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28 August 1999

NASA Considering Commercial uses for the ISS

Artists concept of the International Space Station

NASA is Desperately Seeking Space Station Investors

HOUSTON - Some potential investors are skeptical about NASA's plans for private financing of a habitation module for the International Space Station.

More than 100 interested parties discussed the plan during the Habitation Module Commercialization Conference, being held this week at a hotel about a stone's throw from Johnson Space Center.

With calls for commercialization and privatization from Congress, NASA is looking for private investors to pay for part or all of a habitation module for the ISS.

NASA has funding to build a "baseline" module, but would like private investors to fund an improved model as an effort to take commerce to space. Rough estimates for the habitation module range from about $100 million to $200 million, according to Daniel Tam, the NASA administrator's special assistant for commercialization. Depending on the version built, it could provide living space for four or six astronauts.

To stay on schedule for a November 2004 launch of the habitation module, a deal must be in the works by October. But several conference attendees said Tuesday that deadline could be difficult to meet.

"I'd love to see it happen, but I don't see how they can do it in less than two months," said Robert Carlson, of the Huntsville, Ala. office of Mitsubishi International Corp. "There's just too many regulations, legal and internal NASA things to deal with."

Tam admitted some inside and outside the agency would be skeptical, but said that NASA and agency administrator Dan Goldin are serious about commercial projects. "We're here to explore and see how we can make it happen," he said. "Let's remove the barriers to success."

Not everyone attending the conference was convinced, however. "The largest obstacle for any consortium has to be a return on the investment," said D. Phillip Morgan, a businessman from Clear Lake, Texas who said he was attending the conference to see what alliances came out of it. "It's not a module where work will be done, but where people will live."

Morgan suggested the agency should look at more novel approaches such as advertising and promoting products. "If an astronaut wears a certain brand of watch, it might have an appeal," he said, "but I'm not sure NASA is that open."

NASA officials say they are amenable to various business schemes and financing deals ranging from ads and product placement on the module to even turning it into an orbital hotel for tourists.

One slide at the conference showed product banners from well-known brands placed on components of the ISS. Companies may even be able to sponsor the module or place products there for promotional use.

Tam unveiled several proposals for funding the module, ranging from NASA financing the station and leasing time on it to businesses to private companies financing the module totally and using NASA in a supporting role. But Tam also exhorted the attendees to bring their ideas to the table. "We need dialog and interchanges on the complex challenges," he said. We're open to all ideas and suggestions."

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