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Companies stake their claim in space

An American firm says it is teaming up with Russia’s top space company to establish a new commercial outpost in orbit.
An artist's conception shows the Enterprise module hanging down from a port on the International Space Station.
An artist's conception shows the Enterprise module hanging down from a port on the International Space Station.
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A private-sector partner in America’s space effort says it is teaming up with Russia’s top space company to establish a new commercial outpost in orbit. The plan calls for the construction of a pressurized module named the Enterprise, which could be attached to the International Space Station in 2002, Spacehab announced.

Spacehab Chairman Shelley Harrison said the company’s main partner in the new venture is RSC Energia, which built the Mir space station as well as the Zvezda service module that will serve as the initial living quarters on the new space station.

Problems in completing the service module have delayed the space station construction schedule by months, but Harrison voiced confidence that Energia will deliver the goods for the Enterprise.

“This company has the largest legacy and experience in building space stations and habitats,” he said.

The agreement was announced Dec. 10 at the National Press Club in Washington.

Harrison estimated that the project would cost $100 million (with Spacehab putting up half that amount) and take 24 months to complete, although he conceded that the schedule “might be a little bit aggressive.” The 12-foot-diameter, 36-foot-long Enterprise module would be built at Energia’s Korolev construction facility and launched into orbit by the Russian Space Agency atop a Zenit-class rocket, Harrison said.

Schematics indicate that the Enterprise would be attached to the Russian segment of the space station, between the Zarya control module and the U.S.-built Unity connecting node.

Extending the business
Spacehab’s current core business involves flying experiments and supplies in pressurized modules within the space shuttle’s cargo bay, and Harrison said the new venture would extend that line of business to the International Space Station.

“One portion of the Enterprise will be devoted to research activities” that would require an extended time in the space environment, such as protein crystal growth or materials research, he said.

Harrison said another part of the module would be used as an orbital broadcast station, beaming video and data back to Earth for telecasts and Webcasts. The company tested its Spacehab Universal Communication System aboard the space shuttle in June 1998, and Harrison said that technology would be adapted to the Enterprise.

Cameras and scientific experiments could be mounted on the module’s exterior, and there would be “at least one window,” Harrison said.

Spacehab would set up a media subsidiary to provide a blend of news and information, educational and entertainment programming, advertising and promotion, he said.

“The media company would basically pay for the use of assets and services of the parent company,” Harrison said. “The reason (for this) is that we feel it’s a different business.”

There could be additional opportunities for e-commerce through the global sale of educational and promotional materials. Harrison said the company’s science education program, known as S*T*A*R*S, would also be extended to the Enterprise.

“We’ll have a cosmonaut, at least in the early years, who will work for us,” Harrison said. As time goes on, specialists might be trained as astronaut-broadcasters for the Enterprise.

He said Spacehab was “talking to a range of companies” that could use the content generated by the new venture.

NASA's role
One might well ask what role NASA has in all this. “There’s no direct involvement as far as NASA is concerned,” Harrison replied.

However, he said, the Enterprise plan was in line with NASA’s long-range goals.

“Once again we’re taking the initiative, since all the space agencies around the world have proclaimed that they are looking forward to commercialization,” Harrison said.

NASA has been soliciting proposals for commercializing a future habitation module on the U.S. side of the International Space Station, and Harrison said Spacehab was taking part in those discussions as well. “However, our feeling was that that (venture) has yet to be defined and funded,” he said.

The concept currently being considered by NASA would result in a module with inflatable outer walls — a design concept that has been dubbed TransHab. Harrison said the TransHab design involved “technology that will be important for the future but is (currently) unproven.”

Experts say developing and deploying a TransHab module could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but Harrison seemed confident that the Enterprise could be built for less. He said Spacehab had already begun the financing effort, drawing upon the company’s experience in handling hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of business involving the space shuttle program.

“I don’t think another $100 million that takes us to the new millennium on station is going to be a problem,” he said.

Update for May 2000: Since this report was published in December 1999, Energia has become involved in another commercial space effort relating to the Mir space station. Energia owns 60 percent of Amsterdam-based MirCorp, which is leasing the Russian station for commercial purposes.