Pp 143 – 150


The US federal government is collaborating with a non-profit university consortium and its commercial project managers to develop the Space Shuttle fleet’s expended external fuel tanks for scientific and commercial uses in space. Nearly a half dozen years in evolution, the Space Phoenix Program is a private-sector civil space program with the long-term, goal of opening the Earth ‘s space to as many people, organizations and activities as possible, as soon as possible, and at the lowest cost to them as possible. In time it is expected to be a major focus for private-sector activities in space. This report describes how it will work.

The Space Phoenix Program is being conducted by three private organizations in cooperation with the US federal government, primarily through the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. They are the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR) and the UCAR Foundation (both of which are non-profit organizations), and the for-profit External Tanks Corporation (ETCO). The UCAR Foundation is the majority stockholder in ETCO.

UCAR, a 28-year-old group of 57 universities and research institutions, has requested title for the right to use all the discarded external fuel tanks (ETs) of the US Shuttle fleet. The economy of scale shall permit UCAR, through its project manager ETCO, to safeguard these assets as a national trust and make them readily available to the scientific and industrial community for scientific and commercial purposes, using private funds. Space flight engineers have concluded that such an undertaking is technically and operationally possible, and that valuable US space assets could be created from these used ETs. The Space Phoenix Program is similar in many respects to the land grant program of the last century, in which undeveloped land in the western USA was awarded to universities in the expectation that they would contribute to its economic development and thereby refit both themselves and the nation. In this age, the Shuttle fleet’s large ETs can be thought of as an analogue to parcels of raw land in space. The grant by NASA would also contribute to the economic development of the nation.

The Space Phoenix Program is founded on the premise that UCAR will obtain title or the right to use ETs in space in the form of a fiscally neutral ‘space grant’ from the federal government. Such a grant would permit ETCO to arrange private financing and thereby accomplish the modification, outfitting and management of the ET resources, so that they can be leased for various professional purposes in the form of an orbiting in-space ‘research park’. The UCAR Foundation’s share of the net income and asset value developed from such leases would provide a long-term endowment that would be employed to benefit a large part of the US university scientific research community.

The innovative collaborations anticipated among government, universities and commercial organizations; the challenging financing, engineering, operating and management issues; the potential for creating wealth in orbit; the implications for such other important elements of the civil space area as space science and transportation; and US competitiveness and productivity in the realm of space commercialization – all call for the bold and imaginative commitment of the Space Phoenix Program.


The University Corporation of Atmospheric Research (UCAR) is a private, non-profit corporation organized as a consortium of 57 research institutions which acts as a national scientific research nucleus for management, consultation, collaboration and association. Founded in 1959, it has grown from an original 14 charter universities. Qualifications of a high standard are spelled out in UCAR’s by-laws and the growth of its membership testifies to the increased importance of atmospheric and related science studies in the nation’s higher education and research system.

Owing to the dynamic relationships among the Earth’s atmospheric layers, its oceans, and the solar-interplanetary environment, UCAR’s working definition of ‘the atmosphere’ includes the regions bounded by the ocean floor, extending to the Sun and out towards the edge of the planetary system. Atmospheric scientists have long utilized remote-sensing spacecraft to observe phenomena in this vast realm, and UCAR’s scientific involvement in space-related activities has a lengthy history. UCAR participated in the utilization of Skylab, the world’s first manned. Orbiting observatory and has the major responsibility in the design of satellites, instruments, experiments, and in-space repair facilities. The demand for UCAR’s support in these activities is at a record level. Its growing interest in obtaining and utilizing orbiting scientific facilities within atmospheric space is a logical and consistent development of its charter, which includes the development of extensive and complex research tools, and making such tools available to scientists in national and international communities.

UCAR also leads research projects on behalf of the overall atmospheric sciences community, and coordinates such efforts with its 57 member institutions and other academic and research institutions throughout the world that are expert in atmospheric, computer and related sciences. UCAR has a particular capability in bringing government and university groups together to achieve common scientific goals, carrying out research efforts at various times for the National Science Foundation (which provides its principal support), NASA, the Department of the Navy, the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of the Air Force, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other government and non-government entities. In the space science area, UCAR convened a symposium in August 1987, to consider scientific use in space of expended external fuel tanks of the US Shuttle fleet.

The UCAR Foundation

The UCAR Foundation was established to enhance and conserve the value of the ‘commercial spinoffs’ from ongoing scientific research programs, to provide administrative flexibility in dealings with the private sector and to seek opportunities for the creation of wealth to be used to advance scientific research.

The US government has recognized that knowledge-intensive high-technology industries have long-term implications for international competitiveness, thereby affirming the economic benefits of scientific research. Universities and research institutions such as UCAR, which play a central role in creating knowledge, currently receive more than $8 billion annually from the taxpayer in support of basic, civilian scientific research. This research frequently yields significant practical discoveries and technologies, benefiting the public and causing valuable stimulation of the economy.

To promote this kind of activity and accelerate technology transfers between academic and industrial sectors, the US Congress passed Public Law 96-517 in 1980. This legislation permits academic institutions to own title to discoveries and inventions developed with government support in their laboratories, thus encouraging them to share in the economic values generated by their research efforts. This extended pool of intellectual property has highlighted the potential benefits to be derived from imaginative university-industry collaboration. This trend has led to mutually beneficial long-term strategic partnerships between members of the academic and corporate worlds, sometimes involving hybrid and novel institutional forms, thus strengthening support for scientific activity.

UCAR, in common with many other research organizations, has examined the challenges involved in owning intellectual properties (and other assets such as corporate gifts), as well as the need for dealing with the private sector in business terms. Following a growing body of practice in the academic world, the Board of Trustees of UCAR decided in 1986 to establish the UCAR Foundation to act as fiduciary, and to direct and manage certain intellectual properties and other unique assets for UCAR’s financial benefit.

In addition to the Space Phoenix Program, the foundation is engaged in assisting UCAR with technology transfer and communication issues deriving from programs such as the ‘Airport of the Future’ Doppler radar technology, which promises early warning of sudden atmospheric down-drafts (microbursts) near and over airport runways, and the commercial development by Mesa Archival Systems, Inc. of mass data file transfer software for supercomputers.


A for-profit Delaware corporation, the External Tanks Corporation (ETCO) was created in 1985 to manage the private financing, development, and operation of Shuttle fleet expended external fuel tanks for scientific and commercial uses in space. The UCAR Foundation holds a majority of the shares of ETCO, the remainder being held by directors and investors.

Shuttle External Tanks

The Space Shuttle’s external fuel tank is designed to carry the liquid fuels that power the main engines and to serve as a ‘strongback’ on which the solid-fuel boosters and the orbiter are mounted (see Figure 1). Just before insertion into orbit, the Shuttle jettisons the ET, which reenters the dense lower regions of the atmosphere, burns, and breaks into pieces which fall to the ocean. During a Shuttle launch, the reusable solid boosters exhaust their fuel after about two minutes and then separate for recovery, while the ET continues to fuel the main engines for another 6.5 minutes until orbital velocity is approached and the ET is separated. (2) Twenty-four ETs have been so jettisoned in a controlled fashion; discarded in this way, any potentially harmful impact is eliminated.

ETs are manufactured from 30 tons of high-grade aluminum and consist of 70,000 cubic feet of separate, pressurized hydrogen and oxygen vessels, and an intertank section with an unpressurized volume of 5000 cubic feet (see Figure 2). The Shuttle cargo bay can carry 20 tons, and its volume is 10,000 cubic feet. An ET has a 27.6- foot diameter and a l53-foot length; it is roughly the size of :a Boeing 747 body. or a 20-storey building. The entire trajectory of the Wright brothers’ first flight could be contained inside an ET.

The concept of using orbiting ETs as habitable environments or material resources is not new. Skylab itself was fashioned from an upper-stage fuel tank of ;a Saturn rocket. In 1976 space experts within NASA suggested it was feasible to put ETs into near-Earth orbits where their potential value could be realized without significant payload loss or increased launch cost. (3) Other authorities in the aerospace industry and academia agree that orbiting laboratory-habitat facilities could be created economically from expended ETs by fitting them with life-support, station-keeping, communications and power elements. (4) Auxiliary equipment needed to modify and use ETs could be carried in the Shuttle cargo bay, or within the unpressurized ET intertank structure, or in an ‘aft cargo carrier’ behind the ET, or by expendable launch vehicles. Auxiliary equipment could be installed by astronauts conducting extra-vehicular activities.

The manufacturing cost of a single ET is about $30 million, and post-Challenger estimates of the cost ‘to launch payloads into low-Earth orbit using the fully operational Shuttle fleet are up to $6000 per pound. (5) An ET retained in orbit and not destroyed thus represents roughly one-third of a billion dollars in avoided replacement value. The 30 tons of high-grade aluminum and other materials from which ETs are constructed, the 70 thousand cubic feet of pressurized volume, the 10 to 15 thousand pounds of residual fuels, and the large mass and strong structure of ETs, are all potentially valuable space resources. Because of their mass and strength, ETs are particularly well suited to tether applications, including momentum transfer between orbiting bodies and the creation of artificial gravity.

Official View

In 1982 the US Congress requested its Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to carry out a study on civilian space stations. (6) It became obvious to OTA staff that ETs might be transformed into valuable space assets. Following an open workshop convened by NASA it was concluded that ETs could be used in orbit in a variety of ways and that ” an ET should be put in space at the first reasonable opportunity.” (7)

In 1986 NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center demonstrated its growing seriousness in seeing ETs used in space by awarding a contract to Martin Marietta Aerospace Corporation to study scientific and engineering questions related to turning an ET into a valuable scientific resource, specifically its transformation into a large unmanned orbiting Gamma Ray Imaging Telescope. (8) Astronauts would enter an ET through an existing 36-inch aft manhole port and then assemble telescope components within the empty hydrogen vessel. The vessel would be resealed and pressurized with carbon dioxide to provide the required experimental environment.

The National Commission on Space, a Presidentially-appointed panel of space specialists, referred to the use of ETs in its report as follows:

” there is a potentially valuable artificial space resource that is now going to waste: the Shuttle’s external tanks. At present, with each successful flight of a Shuttle, an empty tank with mass greater than the full payload of the Shuttle itself. is brought to 99 percent of orbital speed and then discarded to burn up in the atmosphere. The Shuttle fleet’s flight schedule suggests that over a 10-year period about 10,000 tons of the tankage will be brought almost to orbit and then discarded. At standard Shuttle rates, it would cost about $35 billion to lift that mass to orbit.”

More recently, the Committee on Science, Space and Technology of the House of Representatives, US Congress, referred specifically to the use of ETs in orbit and to NASA’s verification of the feasibility of such use in a section titled ‘Utilization of orbiting Shuttle external tanks’ within its final report accompanying the NASA Authorization Act of 1988:

“The committee notes the Space Shuttle External Tank (ET) is a potentially valuable resource that should be considered for possible space development. Qualified academic research groups could be awarded ET resources for space-based research much like the land grant concept of the past. Using orbital ETs, universities working cooperatively with industry might be able to increase scientific research opportunities, expand our Nation’s space infrastructure and broaden the spectrum of private space enterprise.

In response to the Committee’s request in House Authorization Report 99-829. NASA has delivered to the Committee a report specifying the technical, operational, cost, and safety requirements for ET Orbit insertion. The NASA report “External Tank Utilization on Orbit” states: ‘The engineering and operating problems involved with this objective are basically within the current state-of-the-art of Shuttle operations, support system and technology. ’ The report also specifies the impact on Shuttle payload, propellant requirements for station keeping, requirement for accessibility to orbiting ETs, probability of space debris or micrometeoroid damage, and NASA’s estimate of the cost of ET modifications and operations. The Committee appreciates the delivery of this detailed report in response to the Committee’s specific request.

The Committee is pleased to be informed of progress achieved by university groups and NASA towards realizing the potential value of ET resources: (1) The University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a 25-year group of 57 universities and research institutions, is leading the “Space Phoenix” program to obtain orbiting ETs and develop them for scientific purposes using non-government funds; (2) NASA has created a high-level committee to work with UCAR on the Space Phoenix program; (3) UCAR and the Government are making good progress towards an agreement concerning transfer of one or more ETs and UCAR; (4) NASA is supporting studies of a Gamma Ray Imaging Telescope (GRIT) ‘which could be installed in an orbiting ET; (5) Zero gravity simulations of GRIT telescope assembly procedures arc being conducted at the Marshall Space Flight Center; (6) A symposium of space scientists has been convened by university groups to consider space experiments that can be conducted in and from space using ETs.”

On 11 February 1988. the White House released The President’s Space Policy and Commercial Space Initiative to Begin the Next Century, which states on p 2. Item II:

The President is announcing a fifteen point commercial space initiative to seize the opportunities for a vigorous US commercial presence in Earth orbit and beyond – in research and manufacturing. This initiative has three goals:

Promoting a strong US commercial presence in space
Assuring a highway to space; and
Building a solid technology and talent base.
In the 15-point list that follows, the release states on p 3, Point 4:

External Tanks: The Administration is making available for five years the expended external tanks of the shuttle fleet at no cost to all feasible US commercial and nonprofit endeavors, for uses such as I search, storage, or manufacturing space. ”

External Tank Structure:

Liquid oxygen vessel

  • Length = 54.6ft
  • Diameter = 27.6ft
  • Volume = 19,500 cubic ft
  • Intertank

  • Length = 22.5ft
  • Diameter = 27.6ft
  • Volume = 5000 cubic ft
  • Liquid hydrogen vessel

  • Length = 96.7ft
  • Diameter = 27.6ft
  • Volume = 53,500 cubic ft

  • Space Phoenix

    Starting in the autumn of 1984 UCAR staff and some of the individuals who are now ETCO Directors began to contemplate the early development of ETs as in-space facilities. UCAR’S growing focus on space-related experimental scientific research, its considerable space science experience, and its appreciation for the general in-space potential of ETs and the actions required to realize this potential. led to a common awareness that orbiting ETs could be converted into valuable scientific and commercial facilities for atmospheric and space science research. In 1985 a task force was convened by UCAR to explore the matter in great detail.

    The conceptual details of rendezvous and modification of ETs to create scientific support platforms in various low-Earth orbits have continued to be examined by UCAR. As a result of these investigations, the Space. Phoenix task force developed firm confidence in the future value of utilization of in-space ETs by science and commerce for the ultimate benefit of the US scientific and university community. The UCAR Foundation, through ETCO as its appointled project managing corporation, has begun to obtain private sector financial support to store, develop and lease ETs as orbiting ‘research parks’ for scientific and commercial purposes. In this way, universities could obtain discarded government property in a manner analogous to a ‘land grant’, potentially alleviating the substantial backlog of demand for scientific research facilities in near-Earth orbit, and opening up space for a large number and variety of private activities in space;

    The UCAR-UCAR Foundation-ETCO program was named Space Phoenix to signify future ETs as ‘rising’ from the charred remains that have until now marked the end of their journey to the threshold of space. The major objective of the program is to endeavor to ‘save all the Ets’, whether or not of immediate scientific or commercial use, and park them in a high-altitude (multiple decade) orbit in a ‘nest’, to safeguard their potential value for future generations. ETs stored in this manner will form a ‘National Space Trust’. One particularly important element of the program is to see that measures are taken (such as defining the uses to which each facility would be put and utilizing already developed technology wherever possible) to produce ‘spartan’ facilities to ensure that costs are kept as low as possible. This would encourage widespread use by the scientific community of ET facilities.

    A formal agreement between UCAR, the UCAR Foundation and ETCO gave ETCO the responsibility for financing, studying the scientific, legal, and economic feasibility of using ETs in space for research and commercial purposes, and developing technical, engineering, business and operating plans for the enterprise. UCAR in turn agreed to accept grants of ETs in space and to convey to ETCO, through the UCAR Foundation, sole rights to manage ET resources in space.

    In October 1986. a committee was formed by NASA headquarters to analyze and explore with UCAR and ETCO the technical and programmatic implications of the Space Phoenix Program. Chaired by NASA’s General Manager, other committee members are NASA’s Comptroller, General Counsel, and Heads of the Commercial Programs and Advanced Planning Offices. Following the first meeting of Space Phoenix representatives with the NASA Committee, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed by NASA and UCAR. The MOU states that ‘NASA and UCAR believe it is in the Nation’s interest to see the concept of employing external tanks for additional uses explored. Therefore, NASA and UCAR agree to cooperate with each other and exert every reasonable effort to explore the concept and provided the concept proves to have merit, take appropriate further steps to bring it to fruition.’

    From a policy standpoint, government, university and industry leaders regard the need for such new collaborations contributing to the development of space as a matter of priority. (12) The influential Business-Higher Education Forum issued a report in 1986 on leveraging accomplishments in space and maintaining US leadership. (l3) It urges business and higher education institutions to provide new civil space-related ideas and to join in collaborative ventures and consortium arrangements. The Space Phoenix Program responds directly to that challenge. The report also calls upon the government to cooperate with such efforts, paying special attention to the needs of new ventures: ‘All levels of government management with roles in space activity should clearly understand, and be encouraged to support, commercial development objectives, with a view toward nurturing a culture more supportive of entrepreneurial efforts.’

    Need For Facilities

    Before the recent launch failures there was a five-year launch backlog of scientific, military and commercial space payloads. Since then two-thirds of the planned flights of Spacelab, a system of pressurized modules and open pallets that can be used in space in a Shuttle orbiter’s cargo bay, have been cancelled or substantially postponed. The Ulysses solar-polar mission, the Galileo Jupiter mission, and the Mars observer mission have been postponed, and all Shuttle-based science experiments have been rescheduled. Despite the legislated mandate that the prime goals of NASA are science and exploration, there is now the probability that national security related priorities will further preempt available transportation capacity, and aggravate the serious backlog conditions.

    The need for space laboratories and science facilities is growing. For example, in September 1986, the USA pledged to support a 70-nation Earth observation program, sponsored by the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU), to study disturbing changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as the ‘greenhouse effect’. Relying critically on orbital monitoring, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program was pledged support from NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, other US government agencies, and the National Academy of Sciences. The transcending importance of understanding changes in our global climate, and the size of the commitment needed, led the Chairman of the US delegation to ICSU to call the pledged effort the ‘largest scientific program ever mounted’.‘(14)

    At the highest levels of science policy-making relating to space, such as within the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, there is recognition that the scientific community requires facilities and laboratories in orbit that can support a broad range of scientific research. This theme, widely echoed throughout the scientific world, explains the variety of efforts, national and international, to create permanently orbiting cost-effective habitats and uninhabited platforms for scientific investigation.(15) ETs are increasingly attractive resources for conversion to facilities of this kind, and could permit private-sector activities to complement and enhance the key role planned for the US Space Station. (16)

    Available, cost-effective, pressurized environments are of significant importance to humanity’s exploration of space. Human ingenuity and flexibility in the deployment, assembly, operation, maintenance and repair of scientific facilities define the need for, and the design of, habitable pressurized environments as workspaces in near-Earth orbits. There are also a great many important and valuable scientific programs which do not require people to remain in orbit. These pressurized or shielded containers have unique value for, eg, microgravity experiments, life science experiments or for radiation imaging telescopes. On the other hand, for many scientific efforts, crew time is the resource which limits the rate of progress or success. A recent study by NASA, which analyzed past and future space missions, concluded that, on the grounds of cost-effectiveness alone, there was no substitute for humans in space.” (17) In either configuration, with or without resident professionals, the backlog of demand for permanent in-space science-related infrastructure is considerable. In short, an orbiting ‘research park’ promises to be in the position of leasing occupancy to a prestigious international list of scientific tenants who need access to high-volume, low-cost facilities for relatively long periods of time.

    Support for space-related research pervades many sectors of science budgeting, at government agencies and research institutions, as well as in business corporations. Annual funding of research and development in the USA exceeds $100 billion. Approximately half of that amount is spent by private-sector corporations, with the balance publicly funded, mostly by the government. Significantly, demand for cost-effective orbiting laboratory habitats is found in a very broad section of research, commercial and development programs. Besides the important agendas in applied science, development and engineering, the current basic research backlog covers a number of fields, facilities and activities. The sums now budgeted by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canada for space-related scientific research approach a total of some $2 billion per year.”

    The efforts of a growing number of US aerospace firms and foreign countries to develop commercial space transportation capabilities promise to augment the total international launch capacity available to the world’s scientific community. Humans of any nationality who choose to explore and conduct scientific work in space will need pressurized containers and specialized facilities and services, irrespective of the precise nature of

    their scientific interests and whether the activities are financed by governments, by research institutions, or by private companies. ETs could become basic sources for all of these science-related activities and thereby serve important cultural and economic roles on a large scale.

    A symposium on ‘The scientific use of orbiting Shuttle external tanks’, sponsored by NASA, Martin Marietta Aerospace Corporation. and the Universities Space Research Association, was convened by UCAR on 3-4 August 1987, in Boulder, Colorado.‘1987. Invited space scientists exchanged and developed ideas on potential scientific experiments that would utilize ETs in the areas of astronomy and astrophysics, life sciences, materials sciences, and remote sensing. In addition to suggestions for specific experimental use of ET facilities in these areas, it was widely recommended that the 5000 cubic feet of unpressurized volume in the ET intertank section be used to carry experiments as soon as possible. Initially, the intertank volume could be utilized during sub-orbital flights, thereby reducing backlogs of payloads and also serving as a first step towards wider use of ET sources.

    Obtaining Rights to ETs

    A basic requirement for the Space Phoenix Program is that UCAR must obtain the right from the government to use the Shuttle fleet’s ETs and then, through ETCO, arrange for their privately financed modification, outfitting, operation, maintenance, lease and management. Assignment of rights to use such novel assets requires a policy decision at high levels of government and the recipient of such rights must be an entity that can be expected to serve the national interest. The rationale of the Space Phoenix Program is that, by having a vested interest in developing ET in-space scientific facilities, members of the 57-institution UCAR consortium will apply their ingenuity to the challenge of creatively salvaging and recycling, for a wide variety of uses, space ‘scrap’ with unique chemical, physical and structural properties. Value-adding activities of this kind would generate rewarding returns as ET resources become progressively developed and widely used.

    Such an effort would necessarily involve a large and long-term collaborative partnership among the academic community, the business sector, banking and financing institutions, and government agencies. The creation of intersectoral relationships of this kind is now constantly being evoked by US policy makers. Evolving the specific novel institutional and organizational forms that would be necessary is believed to be no less challenging a task than realizing the overall civil in-space ambitions of USA during the coming century.

    UCAR is the logical and suitable recipient of such a ‘space grant’ for several compelling reasons: it has a 27-year history as the manager of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, one of the most prestigious and productive scientific laboratories in the world; it is broadly representative of US academic research interests; and it is involved in a large number of scientific activities that must be conducted in and from space. While Congress has the authority to grant such rights to ETs, current Public Law also vests similar authority in the NASA Administrator to award:

    .” any items of a capital nature . . which may be required . . for the performance of research and development contracts . . to non-profit organizations whose primary purpose is the conduct of scientific research . . . [if] the Administrator determines that the national program of aeronautical and space activities will best be served [by doing SO].” (20)

    A parallel may be drawn between the Merrill Act of 1862 which awarded raw undeveloped land to universities as ‘land grants’, and the award of orbiting ET resources to universities as ‘space-grants’. In both cases government resources with relatively modest, if any, current value are awarded. Neither grant requires budgetary appropriations, both include the expectation that universities would develop such resources and, in doing so, realize economic gains that would help support university activities and the broadest national interest. This has proven true in the experience of the ‘land-grant’ history, and it is believed that ‘space grants’ could have similar beneficial results. Legislation proposing government financial support for universities involved in space research has been introduced in Congress. (21) Given the current and projected deficit and consequent budget circumstances, a ‘space-grant’ of ET physical assets that are now discarded would be an alternative, and fiscally neutral, initiative.

    Owned and managed in a suitable legal form, ETs hold the promise of becoming the subject of corporate financings. (22) A ‘space-grant’, and creative investment by the private sector, could lead to ‘research park’ facilities in near-Earth space and to potential profit from their commercial use, most of which would accrue to the universities to be used for supporting future atmospheric and space science activities. Such a ‘space-grant’ would then generate the creation of novel universities-business partnerships with a strategic interest in the private de- development of extra-terrestrial space, which is an increasingly important goal of the USA.

    The formidable demand for extra-terrestrial scientific facilities reflects a backlog of research, whose dimensions reach across the years to the training and education of whole categories of scientific personnel, and to the design of experiments that require significant lead times. The USA’s articulated space science agenda in space has led to a ‘baseline configuration’ for the US Space Station program which provides the country with its essential infrastructure in the global competition to develop space, an event of great historical importance. Through approximately the end of this century, the Space Station program contemplates a basic nucleus of five flexible integrated pressurized modules with a total core volume, US and foreign, of some 30 000 cubic feet. To a very large extent, the future public civil activities of the USA in space will rest upon this centerpiece facility. Yet its ability to support in-space scientific enquiry is clearly limited. While it is difficult to quantify the difference between the amount of research that scientists are seriously interested in seeing carried out in space and the capacity of the Space Station to support such research, it appears that the difference is substantial. (23) Since NASA presently estimates that it would require some 20 Shuttle flights during 1994 to 1996 to assemble the core Space Station, it is challenging to contemplate the fact that over 40 times that quantity of raw pressurized tank volume (70 000 cubic feet per ET) could be discarded during the same series of flights. A privately financed retrofitting of ETs in orbit would enhance significantly the strategic utility and long-range value of the centerpiece US Space Station.

    A joint public-private approach to supporting the extraordinary human enterprise of developing space should be in the best interests of all parties. The economic context should evolve from today’s near-exclusive dependence upon government appropriations towards a shared program wherein private investment supports the expansion of private space exploration and where business requirements for return-on-investment begin to constrain costs and to emphasize large- scale, more efficient activities. This methodology will bring about an altogether more economically and dynamically sound exploitation of space.


    Unanimous agreement on the potential utility and economic value of ETs cannot, in itself, provide for the safe placement in orbit or conversion of expended ETs into orbiting facilities. In addition, this event is unlikely to occur if dependent on appropriations of US government funds, because of understandable competing demands in the civil space budget. The Space Phoenix Program, as planned by the UCAR-UCAR Foundation-ETCO partnership, is as different from NASA ‘cutting-edge’ technology and government infrastructure as the covered wagon-train was to the Lewis and Clarke expeditions. Both fulfil vital and irreplaceable functions in the development of the USA.

    The time has now arrived when the organization and private financial government’s efforts to trailblaze, develop and exploit space need to be augmented through determined and innovative intersectoral private endeavors. The Space Phoenix Program can provide that endeavor: establishing a National Space Trust of ETs in safe orbit, UCAR, the UCAR Foundation, ETCO and the US government – can bring their combined ingenuity, current technology, new forms of organization and private financial means to bear on the challenge of stimulating competition and safeguarding the national ET resource, without burden to the taxpayer. The Space Phoenix Program is an exciting pioneering step in the development of our new frontier in space.

    Randolph H. Ware,
    Thomas F. Rogers, David J. Padua
    and Walter Orr Roberts

    The first three authors are with ETCO; Waiter Orr Roberts is with UCAA, Boulder, CO, USA.


    1. Report on the Scientific Use of Orbiting Shuttle External Tanks Symposium. Center for Space and Geosciences Policy, University of Colorado. Boulder, CO, October, 1987.

    2. While the destruction of Challenger and the loss of its crew in January 1986 are leading to significant technical changes in the Space Transportation System. The causes of the disaster did not involve the external tank, and no changes are expected to be made to it. A comprehensive investigation of the event by a Presidential Commission exonerated the tank as a cause of the calamity: ‘The Commission reviewed the External Tank’s construction records, acceptance testing, pre-launch and flight data, and recovered hardware and found nothing relating to the External Tank that caused or contributed to the cause of the accident. Report of the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident, 6 June 1986, Washington, DC. p 41.

    3. External Tank Utilizations for Early Space Construction Base, NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, December, 1976.

    4. A. Gimarc. Space Shuttle External Tank Applications’, Space Studies Institute, Princeton, NJ, December 1985. This report includes 95 references on the use of expended ETs in space.

    5. Newsweek. 17 August 1987, p 57.

    6. Civilian Space Stations and the US Future in Space. Office of Technology Assessment, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, November 1984.

    7. Report by the External Tank Working Group, California Space Institute. University of California at San Diego, April 1983.

    8. D. Koch, External Tank Gamma Ray Imaging Telescope Study, Final Report, Contract A71128 (for Martin Marietta Corp), Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA. 1987.

    9. National Commission on Space, Pioneering the Space Frontier, Bantam Books, New York; May 1986, p 84.

    10. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act. 1988 Report 100-204. 7 July 1982, p 22. (Emphasis supplied here.) The NASA Authorization Act, 1987. included similar recommendations in a section titled ‘External Tanks as Space Assets’, Report 99-829, 16 September 1986, pp 32-33.

    11. See Documentation in this issue of Space Policy.

    12. See Public Law 98-361 (which modifies the 1958 Space Act): ‘. . . [NASA should] seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space’; also Eric Bloch, ‘Managing for challenging times: a national research strategy’, Issues in Science and Technology. Winter 1986, pp 20-29, wherein the Director of the National Science Foundation urges new roles and more cooperative and innovative relationships among research institutions, and proposes that federal funds be used as a catalyst to leverage research resources by stimulating increased support from the private sector; also New Alliances and Partnerships in American Science and Engineering, prepared by the Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable under the sponsorship of the National Academies of Science and Engineering, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1986.

    13. Space: America ‘s New Competitive Frontier, Business-Higher Education Forum, Washington, DC, August 1986. This report was issued by a task force under the co-chairmanship of the President of the California Institute of Technology, and the Chairman and CEO of Rockwell International Corporation. It was recommended for wide distribution by the Forum membership of 42 university presidents and 41 corporate CEOs.

    14. New York Times. 22 September 1986, p 14.

    15. See. for example, G.A. Hazelrigg. Jr and ME. Hymowicz, Research in Space: Prelude to Commercialization, prepared at the National Science Foundation for presentation at the 37th Congress of the International Astronomical Federation (IAF), Washington, DC, October, 1986.

    16. Although the pressurized volume of a single ET is twice the total of that planned for the US Space Station, the use of ET volume planned by the Space Phoenix Program is more limited in scope. The facilities would play quite different, yet complementary roles. Whereas the Space Station will see many sophisticated, necessarily expensive, ‘cutting-edge’ technologies developed and used for the first time, recycled single-purpose ETs will draw upon technology that is already developed and has been space-qualified in such programs as Skylab, Spacelab and Shuttle. ET facilities could relate to the Space Station in the way that warehouses relate to high-tech research facilities on Earth.

    17. The Human Role in Space. NASA-CR 171223. Washington, DC, September 1984.

    18. These sums will probably grow significantly by the end of the century. Expenditures for a wide range of business activities, including communications, insurance, health care, clothing, food, legal service, and engineering will become increasingly important.

    19. See Ref 1.

    20. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 1986, Public Law 99-l 70.

    21. A Bill to Establish a National Space Grant College Program, Senate Bill S.2096.25 February 1966.

    22. lt is worth noting that the creation of the Comsat Corporation and its initial public sale of $200 million of stock in 1964 (nearly $1 billion in 1987 dollars) was rooted in the ‘grant’ of communicating ‘rights’ to Comsat. This bold and far-reaching congressional action has caused the creation of a multibillion-dollar space communications industry which, in turn, has assured US world dominance in this vital arena, increasing technology and creating tens of thousands of jobs.

    23. US crew size will be confined to some half a dozen persons owing to size limitations of the Space Station. The ‘overhead’ demanded by such functions as service, diagnostics, repair, logistics, maintenance, assembly, communications, arrivals and departures, exercise, rest, recreation, eating and sleeping, will further constrain the productive time and numbers and personnel available for scientific research.

    SPACE POLICY May 1988

    View original Space Phoenix, SPACE POLICY, May 1988, pp 143 – 150 (pdf)

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