Commentary

Mir’s Heroic Death

By Edward L. Hudgins
March 23, 2001
The Mir space station was born as a symbol of communist strength and died as a noble experiment in private space commerce. NASA officials helped kill it. It’s odyssey provides lessons concerning why so few individuals live and work in space today, and what must be done if space is to truly become a domain of human activity in the future.

Mir went into operation in 1986. When the Soviet Union collapsed, President George Bush decided that a good peace gesture would be an astronaut-cosmonaut exchange program with Americans living on Mir. During the 1990s, with Americans onboard, Mir acquired the reputation of an accident-prone orbiting antique. There were indeed problems with the station, in part because Russia was out of money and trying to dig out of the ruins of socialism.

Energia, the mostly privatized Russian space agency, had decided to scuttle Mir and to accept NASA’s invitation to become a partner in the International Space Station (ISS). But then private parties came to the rescue in the form of MirCorp, a company 40 percent owned by private Western investors and 60 percent owned by Energia. It planned to make the station financially self-supporting.

As MirCorp CEO Jeffrey Manber said, “There is nothing wrong with Mir that a little money can’t fix.” Mir would be a platform for commercial activities such as in-orbit advertising, satellite construction and repair, and telecommunications services. MirCorp footed the bill for the first privately funded manned space flight — a re-supply mission to Mir. American Dennis Tito planned to pay MirCorp a reported $20 million so he could be the first private passenger in orbit. Mark Burnett, producer of the hit television show “Survivor,” had an agreement with MirCorp to allow contestants to train and compete at Russia’s Star City; the winner would go on a 10-day mission to Mir.

But behind the scenes top NASA officials pressured Energia to abandon Mir, threatening to cut Energia out of the ISS contract. Those officials claimed that if Energia continued to provide services to Mir, the Russian company would not have enough resources to meet commitments to the ISS. This was not true. Several Russian “Progress” supply rockets were sitting unused. MirCorp wanted to purchase them to support Mir. The money would have been used to build more rockets. But under a treaty with the Russian government NASA had the final say on the rockets, and it said “No.”

MirCorp also wanted to import from the United States a tether that would have provided power to Mir, reducing the need for re-supply rockets and saving the space station. But the U.S. State Department, under pressure from NASA, delayed the export license for 10 months, until after Energia decided to bring down the Mir. Top NASA officials did not want competition. Energia is still fighting with NASA officials over commercialization. Energia announced that it would allow Dennis Tito to pay to travel to the ISS on a Russian rocket. Even though Tito has undergone training just like the cosmonauts, NASA has protested that Tito’s presence could endanger the station (but had had no qualms when it sent Sen. Jake Garn and Rep. Bill Nelson into space to keep taxpayer dollars flowing into the NASA budget).

Energia has also struck a commercial deal allowing a module for television and Internet services, produced by the private American company SpaceHab and Russia’s Korolev, to be attached to its module on the ISS. NASA should welcome that move as a way of providing needed funds and space. The projected cost of the ISS has risen steadily since the 1980s, from $8 billion to at least $50 billion. All the while, the station’s capacities have been shrinking. A recent budget-cutting move makes the ISS into a mere three-person station. The principal job of ISS astronauts may be reduced to merely maintaining the station, with little science or other work of value. Now, ironically, NASA might be forced to rent sleeping quarters on the SpaceHab module for a couple of extra astronauts.

MirCorp struggled heroically to convert a money-losing relic into a private, moneymaking success. Its tragic failure was due in part to NASA officials who seem more comfortable with a Soviet space model than a free market one. So raise a final funeral toast to the noble, lost station, and let’s hope Mir’s spirit will inspire future entrepreneurs to make space enterprise a paying proposition.

Edward Hudgins is director of regulatory policy studies at the Cato Institute.