International Space Station
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Interviewed by Sandra Johnson
Houston, TX – 4 August 2015
Johnson: Today is August 4, 2015. This oral history session with Jeffrey
Manber is being conducted in Houston, Texas, at the Johnson Space
Center, as part of the International Space Station Program Oral History
Project. Interviewer is Sandra Johnson.
Thank you again for taking the time to be with us today. I want to
start by asking you to briefly talk about your background and how
you first became interested in the commercialization and utilization
of Space Station.
Well, it is not a simple answer. I’m part of that generation
that believed NASA when they said we’re going to open up the
frontier of space to commercial companies. It was the start of the
[President Ronald W.] Reagan administration. It was the dawn of a
new era, and Time magazine had the brand new Space Shuttle on the
cover. There was [Donald K.] Deke Slayton, the former astronaut, with
his Conestoga I [rocket]. There were others, like [Russell J.] Russ
Ramsland studying manufacturing in space, and other entrepreneurs.
At that point in my life, I was not sure what I wanted to do. I could
go back to graduate school or continue as a writer. Caught up in the
excitement, I decided to write about this whole commercial frontier
as no one was really doing that. Within six months, I was writing
for business publications. I had some pieces published in The New
York Times [newspaper], and pretty soon I was the go-to reporter and
writer for commercial space. Equally important, not only did it pay
the rent, but I got to meet everybody in the industry and the community.
This is in the mid-1980s, so that’s how I got involved. I should
add that entrepreneurs who were attracted early on were fascinating
I read that you established the first commercial space investment
fund for the Lehman Brothers [Holdings Inc.].
Yes. Really, I was much younger, so I was sort of the assistant, but
it was a gentleman named Jim [James P.] Samuels, and it was Shearson
Lehman/American Express. The fund was set up when there was still
that burst of excitement in the marketplace. The excitement was happening
in the entrepreneurial side, and Wall Street [financial district in
New York City, New York] was responding. The fund raised $10 million,
and we invested in several ventures. The investment I remember best
was American Rocket [Company], which was run by George [A.] Koopman.
The CTO [Chief Technology Officer] was [Michael D.] Mike Griffin,
who later became NASA Administrator. We invested in other space projects,
all of which failed. We lost every penny of the fund, and yet I continued
in the industry for reasons that to this day are obscure to me.
When you went to Washington [DC] and set up the U.S. Commerce Department
Office of State and Commerce, how did that happen?
You are giving me far too much credit. After Jim Samuels had invited
me down to Wall Street, I continued to stay in touch with that first
generation of commercial space entrepreneurs.
One of them, [Russell] Russ Ramsland out of west Texas, knew the Bushes
[Vice President George H. W. Bush]. The Reagan administration was
setting up a new policy shop in the Commerce Department under Secretary
of Commerce [H. Malcolm] Baldrige [Jr.]. It was to be the first administration
voice for the space business community that didn’t involve NASA.
NASA always spoke for everybody on space. The space agency spoke for
the [presidential] administration, spoke for Congress, and spoke for
the business community. Untenable. There was just too many conflicts
So, Secretary Baldrige and a gentleman named [Robert H.] Bob Brumley
set out to create a more normal situation in the federal government.
First, they pushed through a regulatory oversight shop in the Department
of Transportation [Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST),
now in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)]. The intent, again,
was to remove NASA from all things space and allow them to focus on
exploration. The Department of Transportation was chosen since it
regulates airplanes—now it was to also regulate launch vehicles.
And the FAA oversight in the industry has worked out very well, by
In the Commerce Department, Secretary Baldrige and Bob Brumley wanted
to set up an office to speak for the business community. Via an introduction
from Russ Ramsland, I was the first person they brought in from the
outside. We were located in the Secretary’s office in order
to protect us from Congressional oversight. NASA supporters in Congress
would have cut our budget. Many in the building viewed us as a bunch
of rebels. There was very strong pressure brought by NASA to preserve
their monopoly within the government.
I was only there for a year—last year of the Reagan administration—but
we had three goals. The first was to seek to either end Space Station
Freedom or at least narrow the costs down. The second was to help
a company called PanAmSat [Pan American Satellite Corporation], which
was to break up the INTELSAT [International Telecommunications Satellite
Organization] monopoly. The third was—it turned out, just happenstance
that friends of mine had negotiated a secret commercial contract with
the Soviets to use the brand new Space Station Mir.
We took on all those projects, and we lost on Freedom. We won on PanAmSat,
and it changed the world. Before that, you could not own a satellite
where the transmission went from one country down to another country.
International satellite communications were the domain of Intelsat,
the organization created by President [John F.] Kennedy. But as one
can imagine for an organization with multiple governmental overseers,
the operating costs were prohibitive. Rene [Reynolds V.] Anselmo,
the head of PanAmSat, a Mexican-American businessman, wanted to broadcast
soap operas from one country to the other, so he launched his first
satellite with no permission to use it. The first government to agree
to break the Intelsat monopoly was West Germany; next was the United
Kingdom and to my embarrassment, we were third. By the time he was
successful, it changed the world as we know it. That’s how CNN
[Cable News Network] came about. That’s how all this low-cost,
international, live television came about.
The other success we had was in helping Payload Systems [Incorporated],
a company in Boston, undertake the first commercial mission between
a U.S. company and the Soviet space station Mir. We were successful
with getting the commercial contract approved, which changed my life,
because then I spent a long time working with the Russians, and that
started in that office. It was also my introduction to a situation
where normal business practices flourished in a space program and
sadly and ironically, it was via the Russians. The Payload Systems’
contract for drug research was confidential; it had a set price; the
intellectual property remained with the customer; there would be no
public release of the results—all of which were not possible
with the NASA of 1990.
The Commerce office did not really prosper after the Reagan administration,
but those two steps—first setting up the shop in the Department
of Transportation, and one in the Department of Commerce—were
very important. First time in the United States government, around
the White House, the Cabinet, there were multiple agency voices for
the space community—it wasn’t only NASA and its focus
on the aerospace contractors.
You mentioned Mir. You assisted in that first commercial contract
between Mir and a U.S. company for doing pharmaceutical research.
You also, after that, became managing director of—
[RKK, Russian Space Corporation] Energia.
Yes. You supported the first contract between NASA and the Russian
space program. If you want, talk about that early point and Mir.
I don’t mean to plug here, but there is a great description
in my book, Selling Peace [Inside the Soviet Conspiracy That Transformed
the U.S. Space Program]. My friend, Dr. Anthony Arrott, walked into
my office at the Office of Space Commerce and said, “Close the
door.” I closed the door. He said, “We’ve just negotiated
a contract with the Soviets to use the Mir for pharmaceutical drug
research.” Where did this come from?
At that time, the Shuttle was grounded after the [STS-51L Space Shuttle]
Challenger disaster. We had no Shuttle, no access to space, no space
station. Yet this small company out of Massachusetts wanted to undertake
long-duration microgravity research. The question is, could they get
an export license? What we did, to be really blunt, was we sneaked
it past NASA and [the U.S. Department of] State.
In our society, in our country, in our government, there is something
special about space. It touches all of us in a lot of good ways, and
it resonates in some negative ways. We realized early on that if we
went to the State Department and said, “We’re Commerce.
We have a company that wants to undertake basic research in a Soviet
laboratory located 200 kilometers from Moscow [Russia]. The laboratory
doesn’t exist in the West. There’ll be technology transfer
controls,” it would be approved without any thought.
If instead, we’d go to the State Department and say, “Oh
wait, we’re sorry. The laboratory is located 200 kilometers
above the Earth, on a space station”—no chance of it being
approved because space belongs to NASA. We would have heard, “What
happens if they get negative results in their drug research? Does
that imperil the Space Station Freedom project? Why is a pharmaceutical
company able to go to space without NASA?” It’s hard for
us to realize today, but at that time the idea of going to space without
NASA was too threatening, and so we snuck it through.
We told DoD [Department of Defense], and they thought it was pretty
funny. “Let’s test the [Mikhail S.] Gorbachev regime.”
We put the fact that it was in space on page five or inside the export
request. When it landed in State, it didn’t go to its space
department; I’m not sure if it went to NASA. We felt there was
no need. The question was, “Is there a transfer of technology?”
The relevant question is, “Are the strategic interests of America
being served here or not?” We didn’t want NASA answering
that question. So, yes, the export request was approved.
For us at Commerce, it was a major policy victory, because we wanted
this American company to have access to space, whether through NASA
or not, just like any company in a marketplace on the Earth. The story
broke in a big way. I’ll confess now, I engineered it with [William
J.] Bill Broad to be in The New York Times.
I made some novice mistakes early on. Once you win in a policy debate,
you should tell the people who lost. It was a great surprise when
it broke on page one of The New York Times [“American Company
and Soviet Agree On Space Venture,” February 21, 1988]. In February
of—oh gosh, I don’t remember now—, but boy, they
tracked the Secretary of Commerce, then [C. William] Verity [Jr.],
to a golf course. Congressman—today he’s a Senator—
[Clarence W.] Bill Nelson [II] stood up and said, “This will
not be allowed to happen.” NASA was crazed.
But it was okay. Payload Systems did their project. The results are
confidential; I never learned. And I should say that another thing,
early on, that I learned, I said, “How much are you paying?”
Anthony said, “It’s confidential.” We never heard
of that in the industry.
We said, “Who owns the IP [Intellectual Property] rights?”
He said, “Well, we do.” It became clear to me, in the
period of the months working with Payload Systems, that the Russians—yes,
the Russians—had emerged with a commercial program.
I was in the Reagan administration during its last year. When I left,
Payload Systems invited me to the launch of the payload. They were
required under the agreement to have a certain amount of American
observers, and so they invited me to be an American observer in the
Mission Control Room. In ’88 that story broke, because in December
of ’89, I went to Moscow, Soviet Union. It was an epiphany for
me. They had a space station.
The launch took place in such heavy fog and snow, we couldn’t
see the launch on the monitors from Moscow. We [the United States]
can’t do that. We couldn’t do that then, we can’t
do it today. But, they went to a space station, and I’m not
sure, but about two days later, we’re in the room, and the cargo
is being delivered to the station. Suddenly they hand me the phone,
“Speak to the cosmonauts.” It was a very life-changing
I went back to the States to Washington DC, and I wrote a piece, published
it in a bunch of publications, including Space News, saying basically,
“I’ve seen the future, and it’s got to involve the
Russians. Why don’t we use Mir as a stepping stone to Freedom?”
Some people in the community embraced that, and some people did not
embrace it, which is about standard for my career.
What happened was as the Russians evolved, they remembered me as the
guy who had opened the door, who had got the help that allowed the
Payload Systems contract to be approved by the administration. Of
course, I was not the only one. The company had a law firm, Hogan
& Hartson, and there was a woman, Ann [E.] Flowers, who was instrumental
in negotiating the contract and other legal issues. The company had
others, obviously, but I was the one at the Commerce Department who
spearheaded the effort and was also part of the space community. About
a year later, after the project had been a commercial success, I met
with [Russian Space Corporation] RSC Energia, the Russian organization.
Energia was and remains the most important Russian space organization
and one of the most important in the world. Energia undertook the
historic Sputnik [first artificial satellite] and Yuri [A.] Gagarin
[first manned spaceflight], and the first space station, and the first
pictures from the far side of the Moon. For me, they were like the
’27 New York Yankees. Any record you could think of, Energia
held it. I met them in Montreal [Canada]. An acquaintance, Chris [Christopher
J.] Faranetta, introduced me to them. I had met them in Moscow, but
he made the reintroduction.
I said to the head guy, Yuri [P.] Semenov, “What do you want
He said, “I want to be a company like [The] Boeing [Company]
and [North American] Rockwell [Corporation].”
I said, “You’re willing to privatize?”
I said, “You understand what shareholders are?” I explained.
“Yes, we’re willing to do all that. I can’t rely
on my government for funds any longer.” I remember that I made
some joke that you want to be a middle-of-the-road Republican, and
it was stupid of me. He didn’t get the joke. I wasted 10 minutes
having to explain what that meant.
Finally I said, “If you’re serious about wanting to privatize,
and be commercial, I’m willing to consider it.” I went
to the [George H. W.] Bush White House, and then they had the National
Space Council. Mark [J.] Albrecht was the head of it. I went in, and
I said, “Hey guys. These Soviets, Russians, want me to be their
representative here.” At that time, everybody was saying they
represented the Russians—even relatives in Brooklyn—everybody
was coming up and saying, “I represent a Russian space organization.”
I said, “You know, there could be some value here if Energia
is the guys we want to work with.” If they’re bad, I do
not want to work with them, but if these are the guys—.
I remember Mark Albrecht hesitating. He wasn’t sure what to
say, because I said, “I want a letter. I don’t want in
two years things to go south politically with Russia and there I am,
having taken money from Russia, and then I’m in front of a Congressional
A voice from the other side of the cubicle just said, “We know,
Jeff. Better to work with somebody you know than someone you don’t.”
It was George [W. S.] Abbey who would later become head of Johnson
Space Center. Well-known for his mumbling, this was probably the most
articulate sentence I ever heard. One that completely changed my life,
and Mark Albright said, “George is right.”
I got a letter. I have it somewhere. They could not endorse my role,
but it says something like, “Dear Jeff, how interesting is your
new position at Energia. We wish you the best of luck.” At least
I had something to show that I had gone, I had spoken, and no one
said, “Don’t do it.” Along with Chris Faranetta,
who introduced me, we set up Energia USA [LLC], and I was the managing
director. We then set about to engage Energia into the family of the
NASA responded—that’s wrong to say, because NASA’s
an institution. Two veteran space officials responded, [Samuel W.]
Sam Keller and [Arnold D.] Arnie Aldrich. Arnie, is the quintessential
NASA engineer—pocket protector, and everything. They were looking
at the design for Space Station Freedom. They were worried about astronaut
safety, so we entered into a contract to study whether the [Russian]
Soyuz could be used as an escape vehicle for Freedom. It was an important
milestone, with the official contract being signed in the National
Air & Space Museum with several congressmen, senators, and the
NASA Administrator in attendance. Sam and Arnie asked me to carry
that contract on the plane to deliver to Energia.
I speak at universities a fair number of times, and there is always
someone who raises a hand and says, “Why did you carry the contract
over?” Well, there was no email. You’re not going to put
it in the post; you had to carry it. It was a very dramatic moment.
It was the first commercial contract between America and the Soviet
Union in space.
I walked into the boardroom of Energia, Mr. Semenov’s conference
room where the first head of the organization, Sergei [P.] Korolev
made the decision to put Gagarin into space. They’re waiting
for the contract, the whole upper echelon of Energia. I put the contract
on the table, and they start to look at it. That’s when the
reality of working with NASA hit everyone—and it was not a happy
First, the contract was in English, no Russian translation. Second,
it had FARs, Federal Acquisition Regulations. By the next afternoon,
they are asking me questions. “Why do we have to have our bathrooms
inspected? Why does it say poultry has to be Grade A poultry? What
does this mean about copiers, and we have to print on both sides?”
Then the FAR that really got them—and it took several months
to correct—there was a prohibition, buried in there, saying,
“You agree you cannot work with Cuba, Libya, North Korea, and
the Soviet Union.” I remember Mr. Alexander [G.] Derechin saying,
“Jeffery, this is most interesting. How can we not work with
ourselves?” That was the first contract.
But, the upshot of all this was a pathway had been established under
NASA Administrator [Richard H.] Dick Truly, one which allowed the
next NASA Administrator, [Daniel S.] Dan Goldin, to open the door
wider to Russian cooperation on the space station program. For me,
I became the only American to ever officially work for the Russian
space program. It ended up lasting for nine fascinating years.
During that time, we set up a host of critical international efforts,
from the Mir-Shuttle Program, ISS, Sea Launch, ILS, and more. Working
with Energia, opposite NASA, gave me a very unique perspective. I
used to say at the time, in the ’90s, if you wanted to work
with the capitalists in space, you had to work with the Russians.
If you wanted to work with the socialists, you work for NASA. It was
that simple, —and embarrassing.
You mentioned, as you called it, Mir-Shuttle, and as we say here,
See? Habits die hard.
It does. Talk about how that came about, or what role you played in
that agreement to fly Americans on Russian vehicles and Russians on
We like to think in the space community that we are important. The
whole Shuttle-Mir Program came about because of foreign policy with
India and the Soviet Union. It had very little to do with Mir-Shuttle
or NASA needs. What I am about to say, some might dispute, but this
is how I recall it.
The Soviet Union had a cryogenic engine deal with India. The United
States was deeply disturbed by this transfer of technology and wanted
the Russians to end it. Russians refused—both out of pride,
national policy, and the money. Finally, as I understood it, I think
it was the [William J.] Clinton White House went in and said, “How
about if we get you the money somewhere else?”
Okay. Now, the administration is dangling enhanced U.S.-Russian space
cooperation. We’re dangling working together on the Space Station,
to the Moon, all sorts of dramatic possibilities with the Russians
as almost equal partners, given their knowledge and heritage. And
they don’t lose money. That’s how the Shuttle-Mir Program
came about. NASA paid about $500 million, roughly. Gee, that’s
about the same amount as the India deal. It took a decade or so for
relations between those two nations to recover. It was an egregious
step back by a sovereign nation on an agreement, but Russia was weak
at that time and it grabbed the chance to work with NASA.
Now that was the motivating factor parallel to the manned space community.
Within the space community, totally different. A lot of people in
the space community didn’t then, and never had, any idea of
what was happening outside, why the White House was endorsing it.
Within the space community, there was a quiet euphoria. Goldin had
become Administrator. Publicly, he said we, in the United States,
do not have the capacity to build our own station. He lashed out at
I think it was in Reston, Virginia, where the Space Station Freedom
headquarters were. As I’m told, Freedom hardware had been manufactured,
but nothing was being assembled. Dan Goldin was horrified. He was
looking for a solution, and he also had a flair for drama, shall we
say. Now he has the White House saying this whole rapprochement with
Russia is cool. This is a new world; Russia can be our friends. The
idea developed, “Why not have a Russian cosmonaut onboard the
Shuttle?” The Russians refused. They wanted to be paid. From
my perspective, the two worlds came together—the old way of
doing cooperation in space for diplomatic reasons and the new, commercial
way, where one is paid for space-based goods and services. The result
was that the Mir-Shuttle, Shuttle-Mir Program was born.
It was fascinating to be there in the beginning. The Russians—I
can only speak for the space Russians—were a little disturbed
because they had a space station and crewed transportation system,
so why are they going to the Shuttle? “Okay, we need to involve
the Americans as equal partners, we get it. So we, the Russians, will
use the Shuttle.” At first, the Energia officials wanted the
Americans as paying guests to the space station Mir and work instead
on a joint Moon program, but NASA was focused only on finally getting
their space station. Somehow. Even if it took working with the Russians.
In those early days, there were so many moments of confused feelings.
The Americans thought they were doing the Russians a big favor, but
the Russians were scared to have the Shuttle dock with the Mir, afraid
the Shuttle would cause an accident. No one on the American side could
figure out why the Energia officials were so concerned.
Finally, one of my colleagues—and remember, I’m on the
Energia side—said to me, “When your people docked with
us on the Soyuz-Apollo , it was a hard bump.” You’re
like, “Come on guys,” but no, that was the fear. The fear
was the Americans were not capable enough; they’d hit the Russian’s
precious Mir and there would be damages. NASA officials had forgotten
the incident—not so the senior officials from Energia. On the
American side, there was resentment that NASA had to pay for the “bankrupt
and corrupt Russians.”
It is hard to recount all the many cultural and political issues from
those early days, but to cite just one, the Russians had to swallow
hard to allow the Expedition 1 mission commander to the International
Space Station to be NASA astronaut [William] Bill Shepherd. He was
riding up into space onboard a Russian Soyuz with two Russian cosmonauts.
Still, NASA insisted the first commander had to be an American. And
One of the more important takeaways for me of the Shuttle-Mir program
is that NASA began to realize how international partners, like the
Russians were able to contribute to the program in a meaningful manner.
That was driven home after the Columbia tragedy, when the Russians
stepped up and saved the space station program once the Shuttle Program
It also began the transformation of how NASA deals with a whole host
of issues, including commercial rights. Allow me to tell one anecdote.
Probably for many people, the most striking moment of the Shuttle-Mir
program is the iconic picture of the Shuttle docking with the Mir.
It is an incredibly beautiful picture, the two huge space vehicles
from two national programs, linked together against the blackness
of space. Yet, to this day, when I ask people, “How do you think
that picture was taken?”—even people in our industry are
It was an official at Energia who had the idea that the picture should
be taken. It went up in that old classic fashion, up the ladder. Got
to Mr. Semenov. He thought it was a good idea, and instructed that
the cosmonauts were to get in the Soyuz and circle around and take
the picture once the Shuttle docked. NASA said, “No way. Absolutely
not, you cannot do it.” Semenov did it—it was his station,
so he overrode the NASA concerns and so the image was captured.
Energia officials proudly delivered the pictures to us at Energia
USA, after personally giving a framed copy to Vice-President [Albert
A.] Al Gore. We, in the interest of branding the positives of the
Russian capabilities, sell the photo rights to a major New York image
house. Within months, the image was published in several high-end
business and political magazines. For all of us, it was not the revenue—it
was the fact that we could control the story. Now we could put pictures
of the Russians and Americans working together on the publications
we chose, rather than the NASA way of just anybody can use it. This
way, you are controlling your brand. We were very pleased by this.
Then, unexpectedly, the same images are popping up on bookmarkers,
mugs in NASA stores, everywhere. We discovered that NASA was releasing
the pictures with no restrictions. Why? Because it was space. It never
occurred to them that Energia was a private organization that owned
the rights—not the American government, not the Russian government.
I complained all the way to senior NASA officials to no avail. That
was the mindset of NASA in the ’90s. Today, there is a shift
as NASA comes to understand the role of the private sector and private
investment, but not so at that time.
We ran into the same issues over and over again. Let me cite just
one more example. Lockheed [Martin Incorporated] was sponsoring the
Mission to the Mir IMAX film that came out in 1997. Key NASA and Lockheed
officials requested personally to the director of Energia, Mr. Semenov,
to transport the large camera and allow his cosmonauts to perform
a whole range of services, for no fee.
The Russians came to us at Energia USA and asked about the IMAX program.
We find out it is a publicly traded company, Canadian. They have stock.
We explain the whole thing to the management of Energia, so they ask
Lockheed for payment for their services. Lockheed says, “We
don’t give money for this. This is to benefit the space program.”
Mr. Semenov correctly says, “But it’s being released by
a company that’s going to make lots of money.”
“Oh, you Russians. You’re hungry for money.” On
our side, we ended up tracking the stock price of the IMAX Company.
We tracked the opening of the movie, the stock price of IMAX. Money
was made by the IMAX company but not by Energia.
For us, Energia’s space exploration efforts were a business.
Semenov wanted to privatize, and he did with shares of stock. Yuri
Pavlovich Semenov should be remembered as a major force responsible
for introducing what we call commercial space. And, he was a Soviet
appointed by [Leonid I.] Brezhnev. You can debate the reasons why
he did it. But, I’m not concerned why Yuri Semenov went to the
European Space Agency and said, “This diplomatic stuff is over.
You want to take people to my station, you pay me.” The Europeans
There is another critical moment I’d like to capture here. Having
achieved the European acceptance of paying for guest astronaut programs,
the Energia delegation returned to Moscow. Next morning, Mr. Semenov
meets Dan Goldin and says the same thing to Goldin and others in the
administration. Semenov was impatiently waiting for the interpreter
to translate and he finally blurted, in English, “We need money.”
He then put his hand in his pocket and shows them the change. He’s
like, “We need money.”
Dan Goldin was insulted. The Administrator left the Energia office
and went across town and met with [Yuri N.] Koptev [Director General
of the Russian Federal Space Agency]. Goldin signed a deal with Koptev—head
of the three-person Russian space agency—to fly NASA astronauts
for nothing, which Mr. Koptev could not do. It was three people and
he needed money, and the Americans were the ones who scorned then
the idea of paying for goods and services in space. Strange, yes?
That agreement did not stick, and in the end, NASA, as I said, did
pay for Russian services. The United States refused to recognize that
Energia was a private company that controlled its assets. It cost
us a lot of lost time and confusion.
Through all my time with RKK Energia, I am proud that I helped NASA
and officials in subsequent administrations and in Congress and in
the industry come to realize that space can and should be just another
place to do business. Today, I’m working as head of NanoRacks
[LLC], a company onboard the International Space Station. Probably,
we are the single largest commercial aggregator for customers using
the Space Station. And ironically, a lot of our success in business
development is because of what Energia did building a business on
both the Mir and the ISS, and also the relationship they forged with
Today it’s all changed. I’m very proud that America is
taking the lead on space commercialization, as we should, as is our
wont. Space is becoming a normal place to do business in America,
but the first ones to surface and say, “If we provide a service,
even if it’s for a government, we get paid like any other business,”
was the Russian company Energia and its leader Mr. Semenov.
It is very interesting, and especially the time, in Russian history,
and what was going on there. As you said, he was a Soviet.
Yes, and they are a little embarrassed by that period now. That is
wrong of me. If we’re going to talk about MirCorp, the Russian
space community is, unfortunately, a little embarrassed by that period
and the fight to save the Mir space station. It’s a shame, because
at that time the Bolshoi Ballet was being privatized, Aeroflot [Russian
Airlines] was being privatized. Why shouldn’t the space program
be privatized? I agree wholeheartedly.
You mentioned MirCorp and your time there, talk about that.
Yes. So about ’97, ’98, I had been working with Energia
for quite some time. It just seemed like a break was needed. We always
had an agreement, never talk politics. But one evening we were talking
politics, and I was expressing that I didn’t really like the
way the Russian industry was going. One of the guys said, “Well
if you don’t like where we’re going, why are you still
working with us?” That was a good question, so I decided to
leave. Funny enough, my colleagues then said, “Oh, you have
to leave in the correct fashion. You’re an authorized officer
of the Company.” That was true, and I found out what that meant
a few years back during the 50th anniversary of Energia.
To commemorate the occasion, Energia published this huge book on the
history of the organization, from the original decree from Stalin
to once secret programs to the modern era. For the first time ever,
they published an organization chart. On the top was a box for the
shareholders. They had the board of directors, and then they had the
top officer, Mr. Semenov. Just like a Western company, it depicted
Mr. Semenov reporting not to the government but shareholders and the
board of directors. Very cool, and even cooler was that I was also
listed on the organization chart, reporting to Mr. [Alexander] Derechin
as head of Energia USA. I am extremely proud to be listed on the organization
chart in the 50th anniversary book of Energia.
The ceremony, by the way, was unbelievable to witness. It started
at nine in the morning. Hundreds of people, from all parts of the
industry, were there. At one point, waves of cosmonauts came marching
past us. For a while I was allowed to stand offstage, and these factory
leaders would come up, and pronounce to Mr. Semenov something like,
“We, from the Urals [mountain range] that have supported the
complex—” something like—“for 42 years, and
we will support you the next 42 years.” Next came waves of supporting
scientists, then engineers and then the politicians. It was an extraordinary
moment out of some science-fiction film. Later in a private ceremony,
in the private office of Mr. Semenov, he and the other Energia leaders
presented me with the anniversary book, signed, and they kept saying,
“Look, look.” And there was the organization chart with
my name in one of the boxes. Their gift to me.
I should add one other point worth noting. The Energia stock, when
they did go private, created a lot of management uncertainty. Semenov
was very scared that someone like Boeing would want to buy them out,
secretly, so they only issued like 100,000 shares. Here you have basically
the manned Russian space program. We always said it was Boeing, plus
Johnson Space Center. If you imagine that with only 100,000 shares—it
was not the best strategy.
Another cultural moment came in the mid ‘90s. The company was
doing very well; I wanted to sell my stock. My Energia colleagues
were horrified. “Jeff, you can’t sell. It’s not
loyal. You are a Semenov man. You have to keep it.” I kept it.
So, about 1998 I decide to leave Energia and discovered that there’s
a proper way to leave. Also a bit of a cultural shock. I was called
into Semenov’s office, his inner office, and I explain why I’m
leaving. That I was tired, and we’d been together for a while,
and I needed a rest. They asked that I keep the Washington office
open. It was an official office, signed by the prime minister, hence,
it was legal, and they said, “Will you keep it open for some
low-level activities?” I said, “Of course.” So my
leaving Energia, became a leave of absence. Somewhere, still to this
day, in a file cabinet, there’s probably my leave of absence
I leave, and I worked on another project called AstroVision, which
was live, moving images of the Earth. Very interesting—NASA
administrator Dan Goldin ran into me at one point, and he said, “I
hear you’ve left those Russians. I am so happy. I am so happy
for you.” I was pretty happy for me, too.
Then one day, I get a call from a guy in the industry, always a radical
rebel, Rick Tumlinson. Rick Tumlinson was the voice of a man named
[Walter C.] Walt Anderson. Walt Anderson had made his money in telecommunications—he’s
worth millions and loves space. At that time with NASA’s urging,
the Russian government announced that the Mir was coming down. At
this point, the space station program was no longer Freedom, but what
became the International Space Station in name. It might have been
called Alpha then. They wanted the Russian Federation to put all its
resources into the Space Station, the ISS.
Rick calls me and says, “Walt wants to buy the Mir. Will you
help him do it?”
I said, “You can’t buy the Mir. Forget it. You can’t
buy the London Bridge, you can’t buy the Mir.”
He goes, “No, no. You’re the man. No, no, you’re
the one, they trust you.”
I said, “You can’t buy the Mir. But, you could lease it.
I could see you leasing it.”
“What do you mean? What do you mean?”
I go, “Well, they’re not going to sell the Mir, but they
might lease it for a year or two.” I fly out to Los Angeles;
I meet with Walt Anderson. There was Vladimir Syromytnikov who designed
the docking system for Energia. He was echeloned very high at Energia.
I said, “You know, if you have the capital, and you offer to
lease, and it’s structured correctly, and it’s not an
American company—Walter, we could do it in Holland.”
“Yeah, Holland would be good.”
Afterwards, Vladimir said, “Everything Jeff said is accurate.
He knows it. He understands us, and this is the way it has to be structured.”
Now, I’m on my leave of absence, but I deliver a note to Mr.
Semenov, and my old boss, Alexander Derechin and Viktor Legastayev,
saying this. They’re like, “This is yet another scheme.
People are coming to us all over the world.” The prime minister—I
think it was [Yevgeny M.] Primakov—had decreed that the station
now belonged to Energia; this is very important as we talk about Dan
Goldin. It did not belong to the Russian Space Agency; it did not
belong to the Russian Government; under the law of the land, there
was a legal chain and the Mir Space Station belonged to RKK Energia.
Very long, story short—Walt comes out and the Energia officials
say, “We don’t have time. There’s a Progress [cargo
spacecraft] on the launch pad.” That Progress mission was to
attach to the Mir and bring it down. Semenov was just beside himself.
At one point he said, “Why didn’t you come here sooner?”
Walt looks at him and says, “If I came here sooner, the price
would be higher.”
Over a period of maybe two months—while the Progress was being
readied—we worked in Amsterdam [Netherlands], and in Moscow.
We crafted a lease. It was to the first coat of paint. Pretty typical
real estate lease, it involved a $7 million first payment by Walt,
but there wasn’t time. We were just running out of time. At
the meeting finally, Walt looks at me, and says, “Do we have
basically what we need?”
I said, “Yes, we have what we need on paper, about 60 percent,
70 percent, but you have Mr. Semenov’s word.” Walt picks
up the phone and verbally wires $7 million. Just wires it. No contract,
So we saved the Mir. They launch the Progress but now it boosts the
Mir orbit, not pushing it down as planned, and we crafted a deal where
we took control of two future Progresses and one manned Soyuz [spacecraft].
The news electrified the space industry, and I think it was a shot
heard around the world. A Dutch-American-Russian venture was extending
the life of the world’s only space station, over the objections
of the United States government. After this, both parties asked me
to head the longer term effort and I agreed to become the CEO of MirCorp.
The initial plan was to raise the Mir using a tether to a higher orbit
to give us some time to think through the correct steps. But the State
Department refused to let the tether technology be exported to Russia
until the day the Mir went in the ocean. The publicity could not have
been worse. Dan Goldin testified before Congress that we had taken
a Soyuz and Progresses meant for NASA. We tried gamely to tell people
that Soyuz and Progresses have a limited lifetime, and without the
funding that MirCorp was putting in the Russian system, there would
be no more Progresses. The Russians simply had no more money for future
ISS cargo vehicles.
Goldin was also upset that we had gotten control of the Mir for $40
million, but he [NASA] was paying hundreds of millions for the Soyuz
and Progress vehicles. I found myself in the strange situation of
again explaining how a commercial deal works—it was more than
the funds. What made the deal possible was we, Energia partners, owned
49 percent; Energia owned 51 percent. They owned shares of stock in
the new venture, not just as a contractor, which was the situation
with NASA. The investment company Oppenheimer [Funds] valued the MirCorp
stock at about $200 million. Energia is getting about $20 million,
$30 million cash, and they have stock valued at about $100 million.
That’s a better deal than what Mr. Goldin is offering if it
works out. Risk vs reward—that’s how markets work.
MirCorp was important, but emotionally it was a rollercoaster ride.
Some events are worth noting. The situation with our bank account
sheds light on how intense the emotions were from NASA towards our
efforts to keep the Mir open for business. We had opened an office
in Noordwijk [Netherlands] near ESA [European Space Agency]. On our
first day in the new office, we opened a local bank account. Sometime
afterwards, the branch manager informed us the bank account was closed
because ESA said we were criminals under the American system. It was
a very tough time, the American pressure. The Europeans would take
us to dinner saying, “What you are doing is fantastic, but we
can’t work with you. Personally, be careful.”
On many levels the Dutch were very supportive. One day there is a
knock at the office door; there is a very scholarly looking young
man from the Parliament, the Dutch Parliament. They had done a careful
reading of the Outer Space [Treaty] of ’67. At one point it
states that “a host nation is responsible for third-party liability
if one of their citizens owns an asset in space.” Well, under
the reading, the fact that we were a Dutch company they were obligated
under the treaty to take responsibility for the Mir. The visitor then
takes out a newspaper and he says, “You don’t read Dutch,
I said, “No.”
He said, “Well we’re here to inform you that yesterday
we took a vote in Parliament and we are taking on the third-party
liability. This article explains the situation; you can have it translated.
Thank you, have a nice day.” They could have brought us down
right there, but they didn’t. There’s a documentary out
called Orphans of Apollo on the people involved. My book Selling Peace
goes into details on how the story unfolded. Yes, we failed, but at
the end of the day, when the Mir was forced in the ocean, we had $179
million in customer backlog. That’s pretty good.
Highlights for me were when we signed with [television producer] Mark
Burnett and NBC [National Broadcasting Company] to do a game show
where the winner would go to space. I signed with Dennis [A.] Tito,
the ex-NASA Wall Street executive. He later went to ISS with Space
Adventures [Ltd.], but I signed the original contract and later turned
his contract over to the Russian Space Agency.
It was a secret at the time, but I’ll tell you that we signed
with a Western government space agency. The Japanese said if you last
a year, we’ll go to you. There was a real threat here to the
ISS if we fixed up the Mir.
But more than the business, the emotional high point for me was when
we sent a crew to the Mir, paid fully by funds from the MirCorp investors
and Energia. Still, to this day, the only privately funded manned
mission to space. The Mir had been abandoned for months. The day of
the launch, I remember well. Strange feeling waking up and thinking
that today your company is sending two humans to a space station.
I went to Mission Control with Chirinjeev Kathuria, another one of
the investors. The Soyuz thankfully launched on time and later they
docked with the space station and soon enough, opened the hatch. One
of the cosmonauts said, “On behalf of MirCorp, we come to this
station.” Under the contract, once our crew was in the station,
we were the operators of the station. I’m watching from a monitor
in the back of Mission Control. I’m in a private room with Valery
[V.] Ryumin, the cosmonaut and senior Energia official, and [Pavel
M.] Vorobiev, the head of Mission Control in Russia.
The men turn to me and they go, “Sir, what are your orders?”
“What do you mean, what are my orders?”
They said, “It’s your space station now.”
I had a moment of actual wisdom, and I turned to them and said, “Gentlemen,
what do you suggest?”
There had been a leak, a famous leak on the station. The Russians
were trying to solve it. One of them said, “We have to find
the leak and stop it.”
Sounds good to me. “What do you suggest?” I asked the
“Let’s start doing scientific experiments to show everything’s
I go, “Let’s do this. Let’s take a couple of days,
look for the leak. Let’s announce that we’re doing the
Mr. Semenov’s birthday was coming up. On Mr. Semenov’s
birthday, they discovered the leak, and they fixed it. That’s
business, old fashioned Russian style.
MirCorp did fine as the business development arm of the Mir space
station. We did business—we signed with people, we had backlog,
we showed the industry that an orbiting platform could develop commercial
business. But the political pressure was too great. About that time
the dot-com [internet technology market] crash took place. Walt Anderson
suddenly was in fiscal trouble and other investors did not materialize.
Meanwhile, the United States was pressuring, and finally, the Russian
Federation agreed to deorbit the station. I had to go again to Mr.
Semenov’s office and sign documents ending our lease and returning
the operations of the space station to Energia, which turned it over
to the Russian Federation.
That was the end of a very novel experiment, one which paved the way,
I believe, to the boom we are enjoying today. We established a very
important data point for the next generation of entrepreneurs. During
MirCorp I spoke to Elon [R.] Musk [founder of Space Exploration Technologies
Corp. (SpaceX)] and spoke to Sir Richard Branson [founder of Virgin
Galactic]. Everybody was watching, and asking, “Could you market
We took an end-of-life station owned by an end-of-life country, and
we did pretty well in the marketing and the branding. No regrets.
Later, a sad epilogue to this chapter. Walter Anderson was later convicted
of tax fraud—sad, but should not detract from his contributions
to making space just another place to do business.
Yes, that’s an amazing story. Before you got involved with NanoRacks,
during that time after the Mir deorbited, what were you doing?
I was too radioactive to get a job in this country, so I was in London
[United Kingdom]. I say to people, “Don’t cry for me.”
I spent a lot of time in Sardinia [Italy]. I was in London, I had
an internet project. I socially knew Mike Griffin and his wife Rebecca,
and I was over at their house and Rebecca was like, “Can’t
we do something for Jeff?” Mike was like, “No. No. Nope.”
Burned a lot of bridges. Around the time of the [Barack H.] Obama/[John
S.] McCain [2008 presidential] campaign, I began getting emails from
both camps saying, “When we win, would you be willing to work
I say, “Yes, I would like a job.”
The Russians were like, “We’re sorry, you’ll never
work again,” but, the great thing about America is we forgive,
we forget. In this case, they forgave, but didn’t forget. People
were coming up to me saying, “You were right to push open the
door on working with the Russians.”
Then Columbia [STS-107 Space Shuttle accident] happened. When the
Columbia tragedy happened, the Russians not only stepped up and saved
the International Space Station Program by providing transportation,
but they didn’t gouge NASA on pricing. They didn’t gloat.
That also changed the view of a lot of folks that were still against
partnering with the Russians.
In space, in my view, the more partners the better. The more vehicles
the better. The more space stations, the better. That’s how
markets develop—with choices and with competition.
Early on, the Obama folks, Lori [B.] Garver, had me doing some international
advising. Then people began to realize that I was back and were coming
to me with ideas. Some folks came to me with the NanoRacks idea, and
I went to NASA, “Are you willing to work with me?” They
said, “If you want to help us on Space Station, we could use
help on utilization.”
We went to NASA with a unique proposition. We said, “We don’t
want your money. What I want is the ability to put my research hardware
on the Station. You let me market to whom we please.” They thought
about it and first they rejected it. On July 20 , the anniversary
of the Apollo [moon landing], they approved it. They said, “Can
you get your hardware up there in five months?” We made it on
STS-131, then we had more on [STS-] 132.
So I took on NanoRacks. On 9-09-09 [September 9, 2009], we signed
the Space Act Agreement. The approval was very quick, but Mr. [William
H.] Bill Gerstenmaier, for reasons I’m not sure, said, “Let’s
see if they can utilize the space station.”
Our first product was the research platform-1 for use by NanoLabs.
These are small containers, mini-laboratories, that measure ten centimeters
by ten centimeters by ten centimeters. The idea was hardware focused
on miniaturization and open-sourced standardization coupled with commercial
type marketing, with people who can speak to customers. My co-partner,
[Michael D.] Mike Johnson, developed the hardware. We guessed on the
prices. First, we wanted to charge like $75,000 for a Nanolab for
30 days on the Station. No one bought. We then set a price of $50,000,
and still no customers emerged, so we charged $30,000 and we finally
We were losing money but showing, for the first time, that organizations
would pay for use of commercial hardware on a space station. Mike
Johnson, the Chief Technology Officer, myself—we were paying
out of our pocket. We had a warehouse in Houston, down here by Route
3 [Texas State Highway 3]. It was just a storage facility. Astronauts
were coming over to check the hardware before their mission and were
a little surprised by our location. They’re like, “You’re
in a storage facility?” And we told them, “It’s
all we can afford.”
We began to put more hardware and more hardware, bigger hardware,
together. I tell people, “I’m not in the hardware business,
but the stuff that’s on the International Space Station now
is of little use to customers. It’s old; it was designed by
committee. And perhaps worse of all, it is custom designed, meaning
that no researchers are using the same hardware in their own labs.
At NanoRacks, we believe that [space-based] research hardware should
be the equipment that is on the ground, in the laboratories.”
For biopharmaceutical, we buy hardware from a Boston company for $80,000.
We got better results in growing crystals than NASA funded hardware,
and the researchers on the ground understand the hardware. Off-the-shelf
is the only way to go—if hardware in labs is enough to fuel
the innovation we see everywhere, it should be good enough for space-based
research. I believe this very strongly.
Then we saw that there was a market for CubeSat deployments. The CubeSats
are small satellites, no bigger than a loaf of bread. The Japanese
had designed a small CubeSat deployer for their KIBO module, and we
figured we would deploy one or two a year—couldn’t get
anybody, not anybody to be a customer. Finally, I’m in Strasbourg,
France, and a young man from University of Hanoi in Vietnam [Vietnam
National University] says, “I understand I can buy a CubeSat
deployment on the International Space Station.”
I said, “Yes.”
He says, “What’s the price?” I tell him. He says,
I say, “You’re Vietnam. Where’s your money coming
He says, “Microsoft [Corporation].”
That deployment became another iconic picture—the astronauts
took a picture of the satellites going out of the station. You are
nodding your head; everybody remembers the picture. For the first
time, it made the deployment of a satellite a branding or media event.
As in the movies, the phone did not stop ringing. We went to NASA—and
this is the new NASA. We went to NASA and said once again, “We
don’t want your money, but can we build our own CubeSat deployers
for the KIBO module, ones bigger and more effective?” NASA and
JAXA [Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency] said yes. We spent about
$1 million, which is a lot of money for me and for NanoRacks. To date,
we have deployed 90 CubeSats. We have about 150 under order.
We have brought to market companies like Planet Labs [Inc.], Spire
[Global, Incorporated]—used to be called Nanosatisfi [Incorporated].
We are working with the U.S. government, different agencies. We have
flown satellites from Peru and Lithuania. Today, we’re in an
entirely different situation in the commercial space industry than
what we have spent time talking about. Today, there are large segments
of NASA—not all of NASA—but large segments of NASA that
say if commercial can do it, putting your capital at risk, let’s
give them a chance.
There are not many companies like NanoRacks. Elon Musk has done miracles
for the industry, but it has been launched via a government contract,
and there is nothing wrong with that. I wish I had a billion dollar
contract [agreement], but we don’t have a contract. NASA is
a customer, and NanoRacks lives and dies on every service we undertake
for every customer. What we together—NASA and NanoRacks are
doing—is totally new territory. We are increasing month by month
the customer base of the International Space Station without a NASA
Today, we have reached the point at NanoRacks where NASA is our regulator,
it’s our landlord. At times, it’s our customer—eight
percent of my revenue—it’s no longer just a competitor.
At times; there are certain [NASA] Centers that still compete against
us. Basically today, we’re moving into the right spot.
For America, how we do things in this society is to allow industry
to find the markets and invest. Government can support with infrastructure
such as funding the early internet or early aviation. Or today, government
funds our airports, government funds the runways and supplies the
work force to ensure safety such as the air traffic controllers. In
Europe, they are more socialistic with far more cooperation between
government and industry, and that’s where their space industry
is today. Russia’s centralized, returning to their roots and
losing the imagination of when I worked for Energia and losing their
market leadership. China’s space program is going to be a weird
mix of capitalism and centralization—think of Singapore in space,
that is what China is. In short, America, finally, is moving in the
direction of allowing space markets to behave like all other American
markets. That is what I have spent my entire career trying to get
us to—the point where space is just another place to do business
and the government is a customer.
Today, NanoRacks is probably one of the largest users of Space Station.
We have customers from high schools—we charge $15,000 for 30
days on the Station—to U.S agencies and foreign space agencies
like ESA that pay us for distinct services. At times, they could get
it free from NASA, but do you send things to the post office if that
shipment is important, or do you send it with FedEx [Corporation]?
We average nine months [getting] through the NASA system; NASA averages
three years. Why? Ask them. Same safety, same everything. Some people
dislike us very much because we push the system—always, always
pushing the system. For us, what we are doing today has shown Space
Station to be important, has shown orbiting platforms to be important.
We have learned so much—the secret sauce of how do you get customers,
and how do you keep governments happy. We work very closely at NanoRacks
with NASA, with JAXA, Roscosmos [Russian Federal Space Agency].
When I walked in to do this interview, the front page of today’s
Houston Chronicle [newspaper] was, “We’ve just opened
the door to China.” The U.S. Government, along with the ISS
partners, have allowed us to work with the Beijing Institute of Technology,
which will be the first commercial research project on ISS from China.
Hopefully, that will all go fine. We will see. We have now worked
with dozens of nations, all of which require, under the ISS rules,
the permission of Russia, Japan, Canada, United States, and the European
Union. No one has ever withheld a single request.
At first, the NASA folks were surprised that Russia was so accommodating
to NanoRacks and our requests to fly non-ISS customers; the NASA folks
did not understand my background with Russia. One day a woman said
to me, “You know, the Russians are the toughest on granting
these approvals. But yours, they always just grant immediately.”
I hope they have some nice memories, or they’re loyal!
I appreciate the support received from everyone throughout the industry,
to see if we can indeed create a commercial customer marketplace in
space, starting with low-Earth orbit. And we need the support. For
example, when SpaceX Cargo Resupply Service (CRS) mission 7 blew up
a couple of weeks ago, NanoRacks lost 1300 kilograms of hardware.
That was a tough loss in terms of revenue.
Yes, and that’s a little different. As a commercial company,
losing that money. How do you recover? For example, when NASA had
accidents, and when things have happened, it’s taken so long
to recover from that. As you said, it’s a different attitude
now, and as a commercial company, recovering from an accident like
that. Have there been any repercussions from the people who are the
entities that had things on that SpaceX mission?
Sure, yes. I mean, the projects undertaken by the kids as well as
the companies. We had had three failures in a short period of time
as we do this interview. When Orbital-3 [Orbital Sciences Corp. CRS-3]
failed—that very night, [Michael T.] Mike Suffredini, head of
Space Station, calls me and says, “What do you need?”
I said, “I need x amount of kilograms on the next flight.”
He said, “We’ll try and get it for you.”
Then when SpaceX blew, I was on vacation. My first vacation in two,
three years. When SpaceX-7 failed, NASA was on the phone within 15
minutes, saying, “This one’s tough. This one’s tough,
because we now have two failures and upmass is limited.”
I said, “Well, if I don’t get everything I need, I’ll
have to lay off people. I mean, this is real for us.”
Then Suffredini got to me the next morning, and he said, “What’s
important for your revenue and your customers? What’s the critical
items you need flown quickly?” What a change for NASA!
For us, getting what we and our customer needed all hinged on the
[Russian] Progress that was launching that Friday. If that Progress
had been destroyed, I would have been in serious trouble—could
not have done the upmass, but NASA got everything I needed on the
HTV [H-II Transfer Vehicle], the Japanese [cargo spacecraft].
At times they’ve even sacrificed things that the astronauts
have wanted. They’ve explained to folks here at Johnson Space
Center that the astronauts can wait a little bit for this extra this,
this, and this, but we’ve got this company whose revenue is
tied to implementing a given project or service. It is hard for me
to even put into words just how much the Space Station Program gets
what we are trying to do at NanoRacks. Every week we go back and forth
on what we need, what they need to get to the space station. No one
writes about the good side of how commercial services are maturing
on the International Space Station, and that is why some of the folks
don’t like us, because we have gotten priority over what used
to be the priority.
That’s quite a switch in the last 15 years as far as the attitude
coming out of NASA.
Yes. I think it is because of a group of people who have been working
to bring about commercial space. And I think for many in NASA, in
Congress, in their hearts—look, they’re Americans and
deep down, they know that socialized, centralized programs do not
work in this country. Why should space be different?
It’s very strange to go to [NASA] Marshall [Space Flight Center],
Huntsville [Alabama] and come to Johnson [Space Center]. I would dare
say most of the people here are probably to the right of the political
center, and argue with them that they shouldn’t be socialists
when it comes to space! So far, I’ve emerged with my life intact!
What do you think the legacy of ISS will be when this is all said
Oh, great question. They tried to get the ISS program to be awarded
the Nobel Peace Prize. At first I thought it was a silly thing. On
reflection, it’s not silly. Having nations work together peacefully
in the pursuit of knowledge is something worth celebrating. In society,
I fear it will have very little legacy; it has not really made much
of an impact. I fight with NASA to do more emotional things like art
and music for this very reason, but NASA’s just not geared for
doing those sort of things. I fear that in terms of the society, the
legacy is not that great, unless some great research breakthrough
is indeed finally realized.
The station may be remembered as the starting point for our future
journeys beyond low-Earth orbit, back to the Moon and to the asteroids.
I hope the first steps are taken from the Space Station. As of today,
my feeling is that the legacy will be remembered for the international
cooperation. The IGA—the Intergovernmental Agreement that is
the operating contract for the space station—I call it the Magna
Carta of space. I hope it never goes away. It has worked for 15, 20
years. It has waiver of third-party liability, it has rules that have
withstood the test of time, of setbacks, and unexpected developments.
If you introduce that the space agencies can buy and sell services
worldwide, it works pretty well for me. I think the legacy will be
that Russians, and Americans, and Europeans, and Canadians, and Japanese
could work together. Why not include a few more nations under the
IGA to Mars, or maybe one day we won’t have nations, we’ll
just have companies. The IGA is the legal and operational legacy that
the Cold War enemies could work together peacefully.
Largest, I think, international cooperative project in peacetime between
Russia and America—that legacy marks the International Space
Station in the Clinton, post-Cold War era. It was our most ambitious
effort done, most optimistic. By the way, I wish in some way it had
gotten rid of the unbelievably government bland name of ISS. The Mir,
for example, is the Russian word for peace.
I think the ISS will stand proudly in its place of what we believed
the future could be with Russia. With respect to Canada, Japan, and
Europe—they probably share this view—it’s really
a statement of the two great space powers, Russia and America, working
together. And in America, we learned how you run a manned platform
for years at a time. I hope we do not forget these lessons and need
help yet again decades from now.
The lifetime [of ISS] was extended to 2024. Do you feel that NanoRacks—and
being able to show what the possibilities are, and the science, and
now that’s it’s up and running as a full science station—do
you feel like that had anything to do with the extension?
We are told that we played a minor role, that there is bipartisan
[congressional] support for utilization. A lot of people in Congress
like NanoRacks, because we don’t ask for money. So yes, I think
the fact that NASA was, “finally getting its act together,”
and showing that they get the future of reduced budget, and entrepreneurial
space companies, I think it did play a role.
It was something that the Obama administration wanted to do early
on to send a signal. We were on the [Capitol] Hill saying we needed
to extend the life of Station. When we started NanoRacks, the Station
was to be defunded in ’15, I think, and deorbited in ’17.
Then it was extended to 2020; now it’s extended to 2024, so
I do believe that utilization and the value of utilization and creating
jobs and valuation and showing American leadership did play a role.
Now as you mentioned, China is a possibility. What do you see as a
future for this type of utilization of space as far as other companies
forming? Do you think it will take off like a dot-com boom? Do you
think this will be something that grows quickly?
Yes. We spend enough money on space, but we spend it horribly inefficiently.
We don’t use consumer practices, business practices. Government
is slow on innovation. There sure is the strategic need to keep space
safe for use by all of us on Earth.
All this suggest that services in low-Earth orbit may well “take
off.” I think there’s a revolution in Earth observation
where we understand everything going on right here on the ground—how
many cars are in Walmart [retail store] parking lot?, you can map
that. Clearly today, space is both strategically important and of
growing importance in our daily lives. NASA has said publicly that
this is the last Space Station they will operate in low-Earth orbit,
but we’re not leaving low-Earth orbit. Ipso facto, therefore
commercial companies will have to play a role. I expect that, and
I hope to be part of that.
Part of the legacy of ISS is the fact that we showed utilization,
and we showed that it can play a role in more than, dare I say this,
pure science. There are some who don’t like that NanoRacks is
doing satellite deployments and Earth observation services for customers,
but that’s what is going to be needed to keep our presence in
low-Earth orbit. We think that there are so many launch vehicle companies
coming down the road, we want to be one of the destinations. You have
people like Elon Musk saying, “I want to colonize Mars.”
You have [Jeffrey P.] Jeff Bezos of Amazon [Amazon.com, Incorporated]
doing his secretive Blue Origin [aerospace company]. Blue Origin announced
two weeks ago, three weeks ago, that NanoRacks—my company—will
play a role in their business development and payload integration.
Now, if all goes well with Blue Origin, we will be bringing customers
to at least two operating platforms, both for the ISS and now for
the suborbital New Shepard.
And I hope we will have other platforms and space stations in the
not so distant future.
I think we are about out of time. Is there anything else that you
wanted to mention?
It’s an evolving story. We are at a tipping point.
If we had done an interview, let’s say, in the mid-’80s,
it would for me have been one of optimism, but just not sure where
it was going. If we spoke in the ’90s, the tone of the interview
would be one of anger at the intransience and stubbornness of the
American view of space, and the fact that I had to work in Russia
to undertake commercial services on a manned space station. If you
were American of certain means and wanted to personally experience
the joy of being in space, you had and still have to work via the
Russian space program. This should come to an end in a few years but
how strange is that?
Doing this interview today? It is a very exciting time because it
seems like the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle are coming together. Let’s
hope it continues. It will be very interesting to see where we go
in the next five years. It will be very interesting.
[End of interview]