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, PresidentGeorge Bush decided that a good peace gesture would be anastronaut-cosmonaut exchange program with Americans living on Mir. Duringthe 1990s, with Americans onboard, Mir acquired the reputation of anaccident-prone orbiting antique. There were indeed problems with thestation, in part because Russia was out of money and trying to dig out ofthe ruins of socialism.
Energia, the mostly privatized Russian space agency, had decided to scuttleMir and to accept NASA's invitation to become a partner in the InternationalSpace Station (ISS). But then private parties came to the rescue in the formof MirCorp, a company 40 percent owned by private Western investors and 60percent owned by Energia. It planned to make the station financiallyself-supporting.
As MirCorp CEO Jeffrey Manber said, "There is nothing wrong with Mir that alittle money can't fix." Mir would be a platform for commercial activitiessuch as in-orbit advertising, satellite construction and repair, andtelecommunications services. MirCorp footed the bill for the first privatelyfunded manned space flight -- a re-supply mission to Mir. American DennisTito planned to pay MirCorp a reported $20 million so he could be the firstprivate passenger in orbit. Mark Burnett, producer of the hit televisionshow "Survivor," had an agreement with MirCorp to allow contestants to trainand compete at Russia's Star City; the winner would go on a 10-day missionto Mir.
But behind the scenes top NASA officials pressured Energia to abandon Mir,threatening to cut Energia out of the ISS contract. Those officials claimedthat if Energia continued to provide services to Mir, the Russian companywould not have enough resources to meet commitments to the ISS. This was nottrue. Several Russian "Progress" supply rockets were sitting unused. MirCorpwanted to purchase them to support Mir. The money would have been used tobuild more rockets. But under a treaty with the Russian government NASA hadthe final say on the rockets, and it said "No."
MirCorp also wanted to import from the United States a tether that wouldhave provided power to Mir, reducing the need for re-supply rockets andsaving the space station. But the U.S. State Department, under pressure fromNASA, delayed the export license for 10 months, until after Energia decidedto 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 theISS on a Russian rocket. Even though Tito has undergone training just likethe cosmonauts, NASA has protested that Tito's presence could endanger thestation (but had had no qualms when it sent Sen. Jake Garn and Rep. BillNelson into space to keep taxpayer dollars flowing into the NASA budget).
Energia has also struck a commercial deal allowing a module for televisionand Internet services, produced by the private American company SpaceHab andRussia's Korolev, to be attached to its module on the ISS. NASA shouldwelcome that move as a way of providing needed funds and space. Theprojected cost of the ISS has risen steadily since the 1980s, from $8billion to at least $50 billion. All the while, the station's capacitieshave been shrinking. A recent budget-cutting move makes the ISS into a merethree-person station. The principal job of ISS astronauts may be reduced tomerely maintaining the station, with little science or other work of value.Now, ironically, NASA might be forced to rent sleeping quarters on theSpaceHab 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 officialswho 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 hopeMir's spirit will inspire future entrepreneurs to make space enterprise apaying proposition.