Thursday, October 22, 2009

What's Ahead for NASA: Sell ISS to the highest bidder!

    The Augustine Commission report on NASA's future has just been released, and it is an eye-opener.  The report basically states that NASA's goals should match its budget, and its current budget doesn't really allow for lofty goals.  The report calls for enhanced US cooperation with other space-faring nations as a way to spread the cost and benefits of space exploration, and strongly suggests that the US government turn to private launch companies to put Americans into space.
    Earlier this year, NASA's space station program manager Michael T. Suffredini hinted that after spending nearly 100 billion dollars and 17 years building a space station, NASA plans to deorbit ISS in the first quarter of 2016.  This was most likely an institutional cry for help -- the way teenagers will hurt themselves to call attention to the pain inside them.  The Augustine report addresses this, acknowledging that crashing ISS into the Pacific only 5 years after is it completed is ludicrous; yet it also acknowledges that keeping ISS will drain money away from other human spaceflight plans.
    The report doesn't recommend the most obvious course of action: NASA should sell the International Space Station.  Maybe not the whole thing, and certainly not all at once, but sell it.
    The most likely buyer would probably be the Russians.  They're part-owners already, and it wouldn't take much paperwork to hand the whole thing over to them.  Once the shuttle is retired at the end of Fiscal year 2010 (or, as the Augustine report suggests, 2011 or even later) NASA's astronauts will be like kids without a driver's license, always trying to cage rides to space from anyone who will take them.  In return for continued access to the station, NASA should sell off its stake in ISS to the Russians in bits and pieces, trading equity for the price of a ride.  At the current rate of roughly 20 million per passenger, astronauts could travel to the station for many decades.  Of course, what's more likely is that once Russians oligarchs obtain 51% ownership, they'll kick us out completely and turn ISS into an orbiting casino and brothel.
    We could sell ISS to the Chinese.  It is probably too idealistic to think we could sell it at a profit -- after all, the earliest modules have 1.67 billion miles and 11 years of space exposure on them -- but we might be able to unload it at cost.  Cost, that is, in NASA accounting terms.  ISS bears the burden of the tens of billions wasted in the 1980s trying to build a space station for Ronald Reagan.  As a result, estimates for the cost of ISS range between $30 and $100 billion – no one really seems to know.  Offing it to the Chinese at a fire-sale price of $20 billion might be attractive; such a sum would service about 41 days of our debt with Beijing.  At the very least, we can sign over the title and have the Chinese pick up the payments.
    But a much more imaginative solution would be to sell the International Space Station to Disney.  The Mouse could turn some of its vast Florida holdings – located conveniently close to the Kennedy Space Center -- into an amusement park/astronaut training facility.  Those with millions can train for a real-life ride to space; those with thousands can ride a Disney vomit comet; those with hundreds can go through the motions or riding a rocket sled or centrefuge.
    Along with ownership of ISS would come naming rights ("The Haunted Space Station" has quite a ring to it, doesn't it?) and licensing deals, which should pay for some basic research to continue (via mechanisms like the Tang Instant Breakfast Drink Quantum Gravity Instrument Pod, for instance).  The culmination would be an ABC reality show -- "Model Rockets", perhaps -- where 5 international fashion divas are brought into orbit and then slowly voted off the station one by one.
    You know, an orbiting casino sounds more intriguing.