Thomas Pickens III seems to think that the future opportunity for making the ISS that success that we all deep down know it can be </sarcasm> is to get the pharmaceutical industry to line up to use it… if only they knew how valuable it was!
“If people knew what I already know, the International Space Station would be considered one of the most valuable resources our world possesses,” Pickens said at the ISS National Laboratory Workshop last week. – Wired
Well, if only Mr. Pickens knew what I already know – that industry was extensively surveyed in the late 1990s as to their interest in using ISS for commercial research and the resulting feedback was NOPE, NADA, ZIP, NO INTEREST, PISS OFF, NO THANK YOU…. perhaps he would save himself from the latest pyrrhic endeavor for SpaceHab.
For those who don’t know the backstory, allow me to set the wayback machine to the early 1990s, when Dan Goldin told the “big lie”…
In an impassioned attempt to save the ISS from cancellation in Congress, some pretty bogus claims were made about the value of ISS to industry, and more specifically that industry was so itching to use this amazing facility (which had already cost over $10 billion without any hardware even launched yet…) that NASA was promising over 30% of the costs would be covered by industry.
Of course, as the costs escalated and those pesky bean counters started looking at TOTAL life cycle costs, the price tag for ISS had shot up to almost $100 billion by the time it would be completed. Knowing that industry would never pony up $30 billion for this orbiting locker room, the claim was modified to mean “30% of operating costs”. Which was a much more palatable $1.2 billion annual expenditure.
Supporters of ISS (you know who you are) rallied around this number as being much more defensible – after all, the total spending in the US on R&D (private industry, government, and university) in the late 90s was approximately $80 billion annually, so what was $400 million in the big picture? SURELY that would be spent on ISS, right?
What the booster/hucksters failed to look at was the % of R&D funding that was translatable to ISS from terrestrial labs. Luckily, some of us did look at that.
Turns out, you can break R&D into three categories – basic science, applied research, and production R&D. Basic science in the US in the late 90s accounted for about $8 billion of the $80 billion spent on R&D – and much of that was conducted at the Federal lab or University level. The vast majority was on Production R&D – the sort of thing that would NOT be done in the furnaces on ISS. Now $400 million taken out of $8 billion is 5%.
5% of ALL basic science R&D performed across the entire United States would be shifted to the ISS?
Sounds like BS, doesn’t it? Which is precisely what it was.
So, in the best tradition of space repeating itself every 10-15 years, along comes Mr. Pickens with another “ISS is the place for pharma research!” media campaign. Which sounds eerily similar to Dan Goldin in the 1990s.
I understand he is Chairman of SpaceHab, and has to do whatever he can to increase shareholder value (or the share price, if you’re cynical) while he’s there… I think that the outcome of Mr. Pickens’ attempts to commercialize ISS through big pharma will be the same as that of Slim’s ride on the A-bomb…. somehow I just don’t think it’s nearly as funny. I’m betting the shareholders will feel the same way. Just look at the performance of SpaceHab over the past decade… And that’s a real shame, because Pickens is a smart guy, and if there’s a chance of turning around SpaceHab I’d say he’s the kind of guy to do it (someone who is *not* a space tragic).
p.s. – for those who read the linked Wired article, note that the cost of ISS has been moved up again, now at $130b and counting. Pretty soon it will have cost almost as much as a Space Based Solar Power Satellite….