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Friday, 22 November, 2002, 15:21 GMT
Nasa's search for funding
Astronauts working on the International Space Station
Can the International Space Station be profitable?

US space agency, Nasa, is planning to bring in more commercial funding.

Delta II rocket at launch
Will the commercialisation of space take-off?
At the heart of this ambition is the International Space Station, which it is still hoped will generate some business or scientific research spin-offs - perhaps by discovering new materials or drugs that can't be produced down on earth.

Now the agency is building a research park, at Cape Canaveral in Florida, where most of America's rockets are launched, as a magnet for business investment.

The launch of the first component of the International Space Station, from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, was originally intended as a statement of US supremacy.

It has now become an international collaborative effort, with elements from America, Russia, Europe and Japan.

Test ground

Jim Ball is project manager for Nasa's international space research park, which opens next year in Florida.

The aim is to bring in companies which will one day want to do business in space.


It's very important that the international space station serves as a test-bed for new technology that will ultimately lead to the commercialisation of low earth orbit

Jim Ball
Nasa project manager
He's in no doubt about the space station's importance - as a place for research that could have commercial spin-offs.

"It's very important that the international space station serves as a test-bed and a proving ground for new science and technology that will ultimately lead to the commercialisation of low earth orbit," he said.

"As time goes on, we believe it will be the first of a larger number of stations or related infrastructure that may take advantage of those unique characteristics."

Transport trouble

However the station is behind schedule and way over budget.

Critics have called it a white elephant in space and Aviation Week's Frank Morring is not convinced it will do that much for science.

Nasa's headquarters have just completed a big study of the types of science that will be done on the station.

But Mr Morring claims there will not be enough cargo capacity up to the station in the second half of this decade to support a very vigorous science programme if Nasa sticks to its current plans to fly the shuttle to the station just four times a year.

"They have almost a $5bn shortfall and one of the ways they are saving ways to cover that is cutting back on shuttle flights," he explains.

Tourist attraction

Tourists get to see the launch pads for the space shuttle and the old Apollo rockets that once flew men to the Moon, on a coach tour around the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral in Florida.

It's one of the few areas of the space business which is generating profits, with up to two million visitors a year.

Delaware North, the private firm which runs the visitor centre, has just spent a $140m dollars on improvements.

"I would come here as a fan of the space programme and it didn't take much to please me because I love the hardware," says Daniel Le Blanc, who is in charge of operations.

Marginal profits

But he admits that a hardware museum won't be enough to grab the attention of many tourists.

And apart from the tourists, all attempts to get business involved in space have come to naught.

For many companies, the benefits of space-based research seem marginal.

And until the cost of getting there comes down, it's unlikely there will be any takers anytime soon.


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