Space Odyssey

On a summer day in 1969, as American hearts pounded in cadence to Neil Armstrong's first step on the moon, NASA engineer Tom Moser's heart almost stopped cold.

About two weeks before the epic launch, Moser's boss at the Johnson Space Center in Houston had assigned him a top-secret mission. Congress had quietly decreed that the Apollo 11 crew would plant an American flag on the moon's surface. Moser, at the time a 30-year-old structural engineer in charge of the Apollo command modules, had the job of figuring out how to design a flag that would stick in the lunar soil and not blow over or burn up when the spacecraft lifted off for its return trip to Earth.

He also had to figure out how to stow the flag. He designed a staff that would collapse like a telescope, but the compact package, three feet long and only a few inches in diameter, was still too big to put inside the crowded capsule. Moser decided the flag could be stored in a housing bolted to the module's ladder, where it would be out of the way during the flight, yet easily accessible for the astronauts once they touched down.

Now, picture the familiar scene: The Eagle has landed; the hatch opens. Armstrong, however, does not descend the ladder rung by rung. Instead, he jumps off the second rung from the bottom and lands on the moon surface. To those watching at home, Armstrong's giant leap off the ladder looked like zealousness. To Moser, though, missing that one small step looked like catastrophe.

"It scared the bejesus out of me," Moser recalls. "When he jumped, I thought the ladder broke because we had stuck that flag on there at the last minute. And the thought that went through my mind at that moment was the worst-case scenario -- that a sharp edge from the broken ladder punctures his space suit, you know, and the whole Apollo program is over. So my heart went right to my throat."

Turned out that Armstrong was just excited. Moser swallowed, and his heart returned to his chest.

Today, Moser remains a man on a mission, but this time the world isn't watching. Even Texas isn't paying much notice as he navigates a cosmic plan for new-age spacecraft to blast off from Texas soil. Once in orbit, the spacecraft would spew its cargo of satellites, which would allow earthlings to download information from the World Wide Web at warp speed, teleconference with ease and make wireless phone calls from and to anywhere on the planet. Or the spacecraft would shuttle scientists and equipment to the International Space Station orbiting 220 miles above the Earth. The futuristic launches would originate from what is now barren Gulf Coast real estate or remote West Texas grazing land.

Moser was hired last February to head the Texas Aerospace Commission, a state agency with a $200,000 annual budget and three employees that exists to bring more space and aviation business to the state. Since coming on board, Moser has worked almost exclusively on preparing a formal bid that could transform parts of Texas into a space launching pad in the 21st century.

The odds against him are astronomical. But Moser doesn't get rattled by much, having witnessed the American space program's most intense moments from the front row. He sat next to one former and one future director of the Johnson Space Center inside Mission Control when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 72 seconds after takeoff on January 28, 1986. The NASA engineer in charge of developing the 22,000-piece tile puzzle that made up the shuttle's thermal-protection system, Moser had devoted 16 years of his life to the program.

He has just about seen it all. If he accomplishes this next mission, though, he will get to see one thing he never has seen: a space launch within the borders of his home state of Texas.

A different kind of space odyssey is upon us. Within the next ten years, airports will be built in this country expressly for commercial space missions. They will be called spaceports, and Moser wants Texas to have one of the first.

A new generation of spacecraft -- ranging in appearance from shuttle-like to rocket-like to funky-like -- is being designed and manufactured by several aerospace companies. Called reusable launch vehicles, or RLVs, they are cargo carriers that lift off from a land-based spaceport, deliver communications satellites several hundred miles into orbit and return to Earth fully intact. The entire flight could take no more than a couple of hours, and the vehicle could be ready to fly again in as few as two days.

Earlier this year, Lockheed Martin put out a call to bidders to host a spaceport for its winged VentureStar, an RLV being developed with a $900 million boost from NASA. Similar in design and flight to a space shuttle, VentureStar would launch vertically and land on a runway. If two VentureStar vehicles are christened as planned in late 2003, they would fly a combined 40 times a year, maybe 50, if they also make deliveries to the International Space Station. Lockheed would need final assembly of VentureStar to occur at the spaceport, because the vehicle's 128-foot wingspan and 127-foot length make it impractical to transport it intact over land. States are viewing the VentureStar spaceport as a plum that could bring with it as many as 3,000 quality jobs. In Texas, it is also seen as having the potential to alter the entire economic makeup of a region by propelling it into the space age.  

Texas has until September 8 to tender its offer to VentureStar. Since March, Moser and a team of consultants have been assessing the merits and drawbacks of 11 possible sites across the state: nine along the Gulf Coast and two in the Trans-Pecos region of West Texas. Three sites have emerged at the top of the list: Brazoria County, around Lake Jackson and Freeport in Southeast Texas; Pecos County, near Fort Stockton in West Texas; and Kenedy County, between Kingsville and Raymondville, along the coast in far South Texas. Moser's offer could include more than one site.

Narrowing down the possible spaceport locations in Texas is only his first hurdle. Things will get a lot tougher later, because at least 18 states are wooing VentureStar, which plans to select one or two spaceport locations by the end of 1999.

"I want Texas to be the leading aerospace state among all states," said Moser, who grew up in Houston. "And right now, we're not." That honor would fall to Florida or California, the states in which every notable U.S. space launch has taken place. Florida has the Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Station. California has Vandenberg and Edwards Air Force bases. Each state is expected to offer to expand those facilities for VentureStar.

"The bad news for Texas is that Florida and California have existing launch facilities," Moser said. "The good news for Texas is that Florida and California have existing launch facilities. We can tailor our facility to the commercial space launch industry. The commercial industry doesn't like the bureaucracy and red tape involved in launching from a federal facility, and it's going to be these commercial customers that will make the decision on which state gets the spaceport."

Expanding an existing launch site is enticing for the commercial partners behind VentureStar, led by Lockheed, which hope to spend the smallest amount of money possible to get their $4 billion program off the ground. "Sure, we'd always like to have dictatorial control over what goes on at our spaceport," said Ron Williams, vice president of aerospace for Sverdrup Corporation, the VentureStar partner in charge of selecting and developing the spaceport location. "But it's a tradeoff between having that control and saving money by developing a site that can use existing infrastructure."

A technical evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each possible Texas site has revealed that none is perfect. The Gulf Coast sites are flawed, for example, because the area is subject to hurricanes. The West Texas sites sit in an earthquake zone. But the various technical defects of a Texas site will not be the biggest handicap in the state's bid for a spaceport. Economics will be. VentureStar wants bidders to offer money up front to help pay for the spaceport, which is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars, going as far as suggesting that the successful bidder may end up paying for all of it, with VentureStar acting only as a paying tenant.

Moser is proceeding on a postulate that the state of Texas will not spend any of its own money on a spaceport -- at least not yet. Even if the Legislature opted to contribute down the line, with the bid proposal due in one month -- four months before the Legislature convenes -- Moser has no choice but to make that presumption. The local communities vying for the spaceport do not have large wads of cash to contribute up front, so that leaves other incentives, such as breaks on taxes and utility fees that can reduce spaceport operating costs and private investment.

"Economics is what will sway the VentureStar folks," said Walter Cunningham, chairman of the Texas Aerospace Commission, a nine-member board that governs the agency. "It helps us, though, that a lot of people working on VentureStar are people who Tom has worked with before, both at NASA and outside of NASA. He can talk to these people on a first-name basis. But I don't want to mislead people. I think this is a long road. A long shot."  

At Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works plant in Palmdale, California, a half-scale VentureStar prototype called X-33 is being assembled in a huge hangar. By the middle of next year, X-33 is to start a series of test voyages, blasting off from a 25-acre launching site at Edwards Air Force Base being built specially for this mission. The flights of X-33, which will neither carry payloads nor fly into orbit, are to assess whether VentureStar's hardware, software and support systems work well together. If X-33 test flights are successful, then all systems are go on VentureStar.

VentureStar, the Range Rover of the RLVs, can carry a 50,000-pound payload in its 15-foot-by-50-foot cargo bay. Big and strong enough to haul a Greyhound bus, VentureStar has a payload capacity and cargo bay dimensions similar to those of a space shuttle. But while the shuttle is sleek, VentureStar is squarish.

The biggest design difference between the two, however, is that the shuttle launches with two rocket boosters that break off the vehicle shortly after liftoff; VentureStar, in contrast, is a single-stage vehicle that needs only to refuel and reload before venturing again into space. The shuttle's rocket boosters are retrieved from the ocean and rebuilt, but an external tank carrying propellants breaks off in orbit and is lost forever. The expense of remanufacturing and reassembling disposable parts is behind the high cost of operating the space shuttle and other launch vehicles that shed pieces in flight.

Lockheed promotes VentureStar as an express air-freight service that will bring "the expense of accessing space down to earth." About $375 million is spent for every space shuttle launch. VentureStar's per-launch cost should be in the range of $25 million to $50 million, said VentureStar's Williams. Looking at it another way, VentureStar would reduce the cost of orbit satellite delivery for communications companies from $10,000 per pound to $1,000 per pound.

While VentureStar is considered the top of the RLV class, it is not the model farthest along in development. Kistler Aerospace, headquartered in Kirkland, Washington, plans to launch its rocket-like K-1 early next year at a new spaceport being built in South Australia. The 115-foot-long K-1 would shed its booster base two minutes after liftoff, after reaching an altitude of 135,000 feet. Its free fall would be interrupted at 10,000 feet, when parachutes would open. Air bags would be activated shortly before the craft touched down on land. The orbital vehicle, powered by a single rocket engine, would deliver its payload and return to Earth, also with the aid of parachutes and air bags.

Moser said that if VentureStar doesn't choose Texas for a spaceport, other companies, such as Kistler, might. But Robert Wang, Kistler's chairman, said the company is close to finalizing an agreement to build a spaceport in Nevada, which would open in 2000. The Australia and Nevada spaceports should be sufficient for Kistler's fleet of rockets, Wang said.

At least four other aerospace companies are developing RLVs, with each design more bizarre than the next. One has rotary blades on its nose cone, takes off like a rocket, but lands like a helicopter. Another is a needle-nosed space plane that spits out its payload from a forward hatch that opens like a Venus's-flytrap. Another space plane reaches an altitude of 20,000 feet while tethered to a modified Boeing 747 or other commercial airplane before disconnecting and zooming into orbit on the strength of its own engine. Although none of these other RLVs is as far along in development as VentureStar or K-1, Kistler's Wang said he believes the commercial satellite market can only grow, which would necessitate more RLVs.

Tens of billions of dollars have already been invested in global satellite communications networks. Motorola's Iridium, for example, is up and operating, allowing callers to use a wireless telephone from anywhere on Earth. On the horizon for a 2003 launching is Teledesic, a $9 billion effort initially financed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, that is to offer businesses Internet access at speeds 2,000 times faster than a 28.8K baud modem and the unlimited ability to teleconference and link computer systems. Iridium uses 66 satellites; Teledesic would employ 288.

Satellites must be replaced about every five to seven years, and industry experts estimate that 1,400 low-orbiting communication satellites will be launched in the next ten years. That's a conservative estimate based only on satellite networks already in place or in planning.

"As we lower the launch costs dramatically," Wang said, "we can only expect that to be a catalyst for more to get into the market."  

Moser spent the last 12 years in the Washington, D.C. area, working at NASA headquarters and, later, for two different aerospace companies, ANSER and Fairchild Space. At NASA headquarters, Moser had two jobs: to salvage the shuttle program after the Challenger explosion and to promote the $22 billion International Space Station. He made sales pitches to Congress for both. Despite his personal fashion preference for suits, Moser hated Washington and was all set to retire this year in Texas, where he and his wife are building a ranch home in the Hill Country. That's when Cunningham, the commission chairman, recruited him to lead the agency. "This is not an aerospace job, it's a political job," said Cunningham, who traveled to space in October 1968 as the pilot of Apollo 7, the first NASA mission in which on-board crew activities were televised. "Tom dealt with enough politics at NASA with Congress to know how to work in that area."

Tom Moser is facing a tough audience again. In a hearing room on the eighth floor of a nondescript state office building near the Capitol in Austin, he is about to break the news to some of the 30 or so local boosters that their bids to have a spaceport in their region have failed to get passing grades in a technical evaluation.

Of the seven regions bidding for the spaceport (two proposed more than one site), three will walk away hopeful from this meeting and four will be disappointed, having realized that their $14,300 investment toward the technical study produced no yield for their communities. Moser's meeting has created an atmosphere much like that of a courtroom before a verdict is read. This, too, is by design. Moser wants Texas's bid for a spaceport to be all-for-one and one-for-all: Cooperation should be emphasized over competition. When Moser began soliciting proposals from regional economic development groups in March, he told them that they would have to support the winner, even if they weren't it.

At first blush, his corny approach seems to naively ignore the selfish nature of political types. But when he puts them all together in one room like this, his strategy works masterfully. They sit and listen as representatives of a consulting firm that studied each of the proposed sites report how the sites fared, on a scale of zero to 16, on 56 different assessment criteria -- everything from the weather to environmental sensitivity. Some local officials squint at the overhead projector that reveals the scores in color codes. Some on the same team whisper and shrug their shoulders, not understanding why they were graded yellow in a certain area when they so obviously should be blue. But few are so bold as to object out loud. That's because for every official who haggles to increase the overall score of a particular site, there are six others who view the interference as hurting the chances for their own site to emerge as the favorite. Every official in the room is outnumbered, six to one.

Besides, Moser is not removing anyone from contention, or so he says. He is leaving it up to the individual regions to voluntarily step aside. In another corny but cunning management move, Moser has declared that the consultant report is to help each region understand its qualifications, to better determine whether to continue bidding for the spaceport. It's self-assessment, he said, not a cutting of the roster.

Chris Kraft, who was Moser's boss as director of the Johnson Space Center from 1972 to 1982, said Moser is one of those 500 or so engineers who actually knows how to manage people.

"Engineers notoriously are idiots when it comes to management," said Kraft, who is retired in Clear Lake. "They can't write, can't talk and don't understand how to get people to do things. The ones that come along that have the capability to do all of those things are not easy to come by."

At NASA, Moser gained experience dealing with prima donnas of all varieties. Contractors to the Apollo and shuttle programs had their own narrow objectives and agendas. Engineers and scientists from Stanford, Cal Tech and MIT arrogantly criticized NASA's work. And politicians, of course, knew that they knew best.

"Everyone thought they knew what had to be done, and most of the time they didn't know what the hell they were talking about," Kraft said.

Today, Moser has to deal with a Pecos County official in momentary crisis because he mistakenly told his constituents back home that the $14,300 study cost would be refunded if the Fort Stockton site didn't win the Texas spaceport derby. Pecos County Commissioner Gregg McKenzie has a reprieve, however, because Fort Stockton is still in contention.  

Admitting that several months ago the only thing he knew about future commercial space travel was from what he had seen on the Discovery Channel, McKenzie says the idea of space launches from a cow pasture in West Texas isn't as nutty as it sounds. Fort Stockton survives on ranching and oil. The biggest outside industry there is a test track where Firestone checks the performance of its tires. But the place is perfect for a spaceport, he says. Population is sparse (9,072 in Fort Stockton and 16,144 in Pecos County). The land is flat. The weather is predictable. Air traffic is light. And the petrochemicals needed by VentureStar are nearby.

"Aw, for a while people were kind of skeptical," McKenzie admits. "People around here, they laughed at me."

Then he told them about the 2,000 to 3,000 jobs that a spaceport could create and the potential of hundreds, even thousands of tourists visiting to watch the launches. ["Just like at Cape Canaveral," McKenzie says.] And they got as pumped up as he did.

"We're definitely in the scientific age," he said. "I'm 65 years old, and I remember the Flash Gordon days when I was a kid. I think we've already passed them days."

Jobs are also on the minds of the folks pushing the spaceport in Brazoria County, but economic revolution is of interest to the boosters from South Texas, where the unemployment rate, as high as 16 percent in some areas, soars higher than anywhere else in the state.

"We realize it's a long shot, but we have a responsibility to pursue it as far as we can," said Shirley Clowers, president of the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce and liaison to a coalition formed to lure the spaceport to South Texas. "This sort of thing can change the entire complexion of South Texas because of the potential for spinoff industry and job creation."

Moser has helped her see that potential. "He's definitely a marketing person," Clowers said. "Those of us not in the aerospace industry don't understand what the possibilities are. And he does."

Back in the summer of 1969, Tom Moser understood that a limited number of creative possibilities existed in displaying the American flag on the moon. His design would stretch the banner along the length of a collapsible aluminum rod, which would be pulled to extend straight out horizontally from the tip of the flagpole.

"That was the only way to get the flag to stand out, because there's no atmosphere up there," Moser said.

But the aluminum extension rod had been covered with an anti-corrosive coating that did not take well to the vacuum-like atmosphere of the moon. When the astronauts tried to pull the rod to its full extension, it stuck. And that's why the flag on the moon looks like it is waving in the breeze, even though the moon has no wind. It's because the flag could not be stretched to its full extension along the stuck aluminum rod. "After that, we made sure all of the flags looked exactly the same way," Moser said. "But the first one was an error."

Again, what looked like disaster for Tom Moser turned out okay. His plans worked out just fine. He's counting on that happening again, with all of Texas watching.

E-mail Stuart Eskenazi at

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