Science Friction

Architect Constance Adams designed an inflatable house that could take American astronauts to Mars. NASA wants to build it, but Congress keeps bursting the bubble.

But just how would space commercialization work? McDonald's billboards circling high above the earth? Scientific research corporations sponsoring experiments in their best interests? An out-of-this-world hotel for the rich and famous?

Space tourism might seem like the most far-fetched of the possibilities, but it's already in the works. Earlier this year, an antigovernment American billionaire named Walter Anderson formed a corporation with his Sikh sidekick to lease Mir from the Russian government for $200 million a year for the rest of the station's lifetime. MirCorp's Web site announces that "the Mir space station is now commercially available for international users who seek access to one of mankind's most unique industrial, scientific and recreational facilities." The price tag for a week in orbit is a cool $20 million, including round-trip transportation via a Soyuz rocket. First to sign up was a former rocket scientist from Santa Monica, California, named Dennis Tito, who's now in training for his vacation scheduled to take place in early 2001.

After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.
Photo courtesy of NASA
After: Twelve hours later, the full-blown, full-scale model is ready for astronauts.

Aside from philosophical questions about whether tourism is the best use of space technology, there are practical concerns about whether space is a sound investment. As for Transhab, says Cowing, "you've got to find some commercial thing to do inside of there that's worth [the cost of building and launching the module], plus what it takes to run it, plus what you could have gotten if you just put that money in the bank." He estimates a private company would have to generate $700 million to $800 million with Transhab in a relatively short period of time. "Now, what are people going to pay to do up there?" he asks and then answers: "The only possible customer you could have for that is the U.S. government -- to rent it back." And Cowing says that NASA claims it is legally unable to enter into a lease agreement for a space station module. Daniel Tam, NASA's assistant to the administrator for commercialization, declined the Houston Press's request for an interview.

Last August NASA held a Habitation Module Commercialization Conference at the Johnson Space Center to drum up interest in a privately owned space station module, "Comlab," based on Transhab's design. Insiders say about five companies submitted proposals, including Boeing, the corporation already contracted to build the space station's traditional hard habitation module. These initial proposals were rejected by NASA because all of them assumed significant government backing, something NASA can no longer offer.

But Fender, the ever-optimistic Transhab project manager, says that "a new person, a new entity, came into play, and they proposed something that was very appealing to NASA as far as commercialization." Fender can't talk about the proposal or even the parties involved, but she hopes to see it go public within the next three months. Cowing is not convinced. "As with Transhab, I would suspect that NASA's manager is full of hot air," he says. "Any company now who wants to build a Transhab has to cough up all the money themselves. I can take that same amount of money and invest it in lottery tickets and probably do a lot better."

If the profitability of Transhab scares away potential private investors, that's perfectly okay with Constance Adams, who has understandable concerns about one person or corporation owning the inflatables technology or the information to be gained from research on the space station. "The best parallel," she says, "is the human genome project. Is anybody comfortable with the idea that the private team is going to get there first? … The idea of anybody owning that information should make us all very upset."

In fact, it might be even more crucial to keep Transhab technology in the public domain, because it is that technology that will enable a trip to Mars. "Dude!" she exclaims. "If I were Bill Gates, would I be on my way to Mars? You bet. The problem is that I'd own what I got to. That's not a problem for me if I'm Bill Gates, but it's a problem for the people of the earth. What troubles me is that in a scenario in which private capital gets there first, you can forget -- for the rest of history -- there being anything like equal rights for the non-capital-holders on earth. The potential for abuse there, in the absence of law, in the absence of full public disclosure and full public ownership of that knowledge, [would mean] we're in big trouble as a species."

Constance Adams is in her kitchen making coffee late one night, when it seems to sink in for the first time that her project will most likely not be built -- with public or private funds. When the evidence is laid out before her, she is, uncharacteristically, speechless. The woman who can explain virtually everything can't figure this one out. She pauses, shaking her head and absentmindedly rinsing the few dishes in her sink. Like any architect, she is certainly used to designing buildings that never get beyond drawings on paper. But Transhab is more important than even the most beautiful earthbound building, and the moment of quiet doubt passes quickly. Transhab can't be dead. She's off again, in a flurry of excited words:
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