MaryLynneDittmar.com

Atlantis Journal – Epilogue

by on Dec.19, 2011, under Commercial Space, Space Exploration, Space Policy, Space Shuttle Program

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.

MLD

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8 Comments for this entry

  • Dan

    Hi, Mary Lynne,

    I read your blog and other accounts with fascination. Although this “quick restart” effort wasn’t to be, I think it’s all for the best. Despite their magnificent accomplishments and capabilities, these vehicles suffered from fatal flaws only a major redesign could adequately address. Moreover, as you apparently found out, this venture was in conflict with critical infrastructure (Launch Complex 39 comes to mind immediately) required for beyond-LEO HSF, no matter how much reimbursement money was offered up. Personally, I’d rather see HSF exploring beyond LEO than indulge the nostalgia of continued and inherently unsafe Shuttle operations.

    But this need not be an “either or” choice. I think your venture is now in an excellent position if it’s considering that “major redesign” I mentioned earlier. Hopefully, that will give you time to finance and implement dedicated fabrication, ground processing, launch, training, and operations infrastructure. If this will truly be the “LEO space truck” from the next 30 years, it deserves nothing less.

    Let me know if you need help picking a launch site location. ;-)

  • keithcowing

    There is clearly no “there” there – just your anecdotes about chatting with some rich UK investor and your shuttle pals and the (apparent) fun of being secretive about all of this. No one has produced any prospectus, summary, brochure, etc. that describes what this company was proposing to do. I can certainly understand if investors chose to keep things close to their chest, but that means that there is nothing to hang this story on. As for your “track record”, nothing personal, but I am not familiar with any other large multi-million/billion-dollar class business venture – of any sort – that you have played a key role in nurturing into existence. If I have missed something in this regard, please let me know.

  • keithcowing

    MLD you and the other Shuttle-huggers just won’t let go will you? This whole idea was a joke and calls into serious question the skills of the investors you claim were involved.

    • MLD

      Tsk, tsk Keith…I’d have thought you ‘knew’ me better than that. Re-read the blog – first, I had to be persuaded; second, the conditions I set were (a) to infuse some reality into the effort, (b) drive a business case, without which I had no interest in participating, and (c) determine whether there was a business case where NASA wasn’t the primary/sole/anchor tenant, ditto my previous comment. Those conditions were satisfied, at which point I was in. The point you’re missing (or perhaps you’re playing the ‘provocateur’ with your usual relish ;) ) – is that the effort involved in making those determinations constituted a necessary but not sufficient set of decisions needed for investment to flow…and once flowing, then the market determinations firm up over time, etc. All that should make it pretty obvious that the whole effort was not about Shuttle hugging but about commercialization – which I’d thought you’d approve of, unless you’re only OK with commercialization of certain assets. And because all that groundwork got laid, now we have an investment group bitten by the space bug who is off doing yet more due diligence and from whom I’m pretty sure we’ll be hearing in the New Year….and we can assure everyone that the final “we shoulda…” with regard to Shuttle has now been satisfied, and we can move on. All in all I’m pretty happy with the outcome.

      Sometimes it’s a difficult case to make in this “either/or” world, but emotion and reason are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I’m perfectly capable of great affection for the vehicles and thinking like a hard-nosed business woman at the same time. And as for your last comment – unjustifiable unless you can produce the market data – real market data – supporting it. They’re the ones who have made a great deal of money in a variety of markets.

      • keithcowing

        Can you provide the market data that these people based their business plan upon? Unless you can produce that …. like I’ve said everyone has at least one fantasy “save the shuttle” idea ..

        • MLD

          As has been stated, they’re looking at follow on efforts. So it stands to reason that any market data/business plans developed during this interval that may impact future decisions – as is the case – would necessarily be proprietary.

          And as for “unless I can produce that” – I’m comfortable with my track record, Keith.

  • keithcowing

    Just another example of people in extreme denial about the retirement of the space shuttle. They’ll do anything to keep it alive – even after it has already been shut down – permanently.

    • MLD

      While I appreciate (and long anticipated) that this response would be widely held, it is certainly not true of me (as I think
      i made clear in the blog), nor is it true of the investors, all of whom are well-established venture capitalists with no particular interest in space prior to this initiative. So, to whom are you referring?

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