Transit authority model eyed for space shuttle

Posted: October 7, 2002

NASA will examine shifting shuttle management to a corporate "space authority," similar to a ground-based regional mass transit authority, as part of assessments on how to restructure the shuttle program for an additional 20 years of operation.

The concept would be structured to incur debt and "float bonds" to maintain, operate and modernize the shuttle system for the second half of its service life.

As part of the model, the International Space Station could be run by a nongovernmental organization (NGO) serviced by a space transit authority that would operate the shuttle.

The concept would take NASA out of the lead role in operating both the shuttle and space station to free it for more research and development operations, such as new deep-space manned flight goals.

Such new exploration options are to be aired this week and next at the World Space Congress (WSC) in Houston--a once-per-decade meeting expected to draw 13,000 people from 100 countries.

More than 5,000 space technology papers and briefings are set to take place at the WSC, where more than 300 global aerospace companies and organizations have signed to fill more than 350,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space.

NEW-GENERATION manned space systems derived by NASA's multi-center "Next" Exploration Team will be another major topic at the WSC, Johnson Space Center managers said. Those concepts include a manned facility at the L1 Lagrangian point about 200,000 mi. from Earth, where the gravity of the Moon and Earth balance out, allowing a stationary facility to support lunar base or manned Mars options.

The same Competitive Source Task Force report that spawned the mass transit shuttle management model said such a space authority could help provide "a smooth transition" to future manned space operations.

The transit authority model is among several options derived by the task force supported by the Rand Corp. and briefed recently to NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe. Aviation Week & Space Technology obtained a copy of the report (AW&ST Sept. 23, p. 32).

The group also found that, should NASA try to implement the transit authority model, "severe political resistance should be expected due to a backlash from the existing shuttle contractor base."

The report suggests that the extent to which such innovative concepts can be introduced will depend largely on how much political capital the Bush White House and O'Keefe are willing to spend to overturn the existing corporate and NASA management structures.

A weakness of the authority model would be that "political and managerial determination would be required to move the space authority toward more market discipline or eventual privatization," the task force said.

The space authority model, however, could help overcome problems caused by the relatively narrow space shuttle contractor force, where competition is limited because the shuttle components and operations are so specialized, the report said.

There are more than 600 contracts currently involved in space shuttle operations. But Boeing, Lockheed Martin and their United Space Alliance joint venture, and Thiokol are involved with 80%of these contracts.

THE TASK FORCE SAID the authority model "could absorb" the existing Space Flight Operations Contract managed by United Space Alliance under about $1.5 billion per year in funding. NASA is now determining whether it will renew the United Space Alliance SFOC option that expires in 2004--a move the space agency must decide upon by the middle of next year for budget planning purposes.

The report said the strengths of the authority model are:

  • It would allow NASA "to exit the business of operating human space assets."

  • It would force "a clear delineation of shuttle enterprise."

  • It would be feasible without the emergence of a commercial market for shuttle capacity.

  • The concept is "consistent with a wide range of governance models."

  • The formation of such a space authority would be an "explicit strategic response to limited competition in the supplier base."

  • It would provide an interim step to more complete privatization.

  • It would increase the potential for manned flight operations to access credit markets.

The task force also determined that additional weaknesses of the concept are that it could be cast as a retreat from competitive sourcing or even "viewed as a ploy to avoid" elements of the federal budget process and congressional oversight.

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