It’s been a long time since I posted. There’s been good reason for that, and that reason is all about Atlantis and her sister ship Endeavour.
About 10 weeks ago as I write, my good friend Randy Stone (former JSC Deputy Center Director and former Director of the Mission Operations Directorate) gave me a call.
“I just got off the phone with a millionaire”.
I was impressed – didn’t know he knew any, and told him so. Then asked how he happened to be on the phone with a millionaire.
“He wants to fly the Shuttle commercially”.
To say that I was underwhelmed is an understatement. I was completely disinterested for a few reasons:
(1) I and we (meaning the space community) and the U.S. (meaning, the United States) were moving beyond the end of the Shuttle Program. It was hard, slow going in some quarters, but it was happening. The shuttles were gone and being disassembled as we spoke. They were past the point of no return. Or so I thought.
(2) I had participated in 2 “commercial shuttle” market analyses over the years; one over 10 years ago when I was at Boeing and one I had led for a client a few years later. No one – including me – had ever found market(s) sufficient to support the Shuttle’s annual operating costs, let alone generate profit.
(3) I had real work to do.
“You’ve GOT to be kidding me”.
Randy called again the next day, and suggested that I talk with the guy. He’d been impressed, which was enough to intrigue me. I agreed.
“The guy”, whose name is Kevin Holleran, turned out to be a genuinely original thinker despite his being an English bloke (joke!) After speaking with him for a while I agreed to do my own “due diligence” – to check out the effort, get background on the people involved, explore the political and technical landscapes, etc. In the days that followed, I also set four conditions for my participation, the first three of which were required in order to make the project at all viable, in my opinion:
1) The commercial Shuttle business entity would not seek so much as a dime of government money for development or operations;
2) The entity had to generate a business case that could close without NASA as a customer;
3) That same business case had to be sufficiently robust to enable full-cost reimbursement to the government for any and all infrastructure and other resource use; and
4) I would not agree to support the effort until I was convinced of its seriousness and comfortable with the team.
10 weeks later, I am proud to say that everything – and I do mean EVERYTHING – has been done to explore whether one or two of the Shuttles – most probably Atlantis – could be returned to operational status on a purely commercial basis. Kevin’s leadership was extraordinary on all fronts. We were not successful – but that conclusion was not due to Orbiter disassembly. Further, all of “my” conditions were met. Times have changed since my last pass at this and we did find a market – more than one – and a business case that closed, driven by the Shuttle’s unique capabilities. As markets continued to surface the funding raised by Kevin – who was also an investor in the project – grew, dramatically so. Doors opened left and right and the buzz increased. Initially skeptical, people became caught up in the vision of a Commercial Space Shuttle funded entirely by private and institutional investors and put back into service to shape new markets.
I was indeed convinced of the seriousness of the effort, and eventually, inspired. Long before the end it was all about the people, the love of human spaceflight, and a desire to open markets and build something for the future. I offered strategic guidance to Kevin, helping him create a serious exploratory effort by reaching out to senior government officials and industry executives. The challenges and rewards experienced by the team as we worked through technical, political, and business hurdles required setting aside all of the naysaying (while acknowledging the realities of the situation) and testing a great many assumptions. For me personally, it meant asking industry, legislative and agency personnel on all sides of the discussion to suspend disbelief one more time - some at professional and emotional cost – in order to give us hard-nosed assessments and at the same time think as far outside the box as they ever had before.
We will never know if the technical challenges of returning an Orbiter to operational status could have been overcome. What we do know is that the response to the effort was gratifying. Even among those who didn’t believe it possible or didn’t think it should be possible, many still hoped there was a way. That’s a fitting, final epilogue for those incredible machines.
I direct you to NASASpaceflight.com, and Chris Bergin’s article on the effort. He became aware of the project early on, voluntarily embargoed what he knew, and risked losing a huge “scoop” so that some complex, sensitive discussions might go on unperturbed. He has earned the right to tell the story first.