Friday, August 09, 2013

Muncy: ISS Processes "Too Strict" for Commercial Business!

Space Frontier Foundation board member and founder Jim Muncy..

          by Allison Rae Hannigan

If space industry professionals can be called nerds and geeks, and policy professionals are “wonks,” then what does that make a space policy professional? A wonky nerd? A geeky wonk? Either way, it doesn’t sound very cool.

And Jim Muncy, of the space policy consultancy, Polispace, pretty much matches the description: someone totally wonky and into nerd/geekism, not quite cool enough to be in the ‘in’ crowd but very, very smart, and really popular amongst his own space people.

During the recent NewSpace 2013 Conference hosted by the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), I was able to snag some time to interview Muncy, and learn more about him.

He was one of the three co-founders of the SFF (along with space activist Rick Tumlinson and current SFF board chairman Bob Werb), when 25 years ago, they decided that it was going to be all about how to make space settlement happen. In essence, he wanted to create a positive and hopeful future in space for our country and our species.

He still wants to do that, and he told me that his life’s mission is to “accelerate the human breakout into space.” He does this by helping space companies create strategies to ‘not swim uphill all the way,” which means he mitigates some of the risk factors inherent in this industry. Muncy said he helps companies avoid problems of barriers by what he called the “forces of darkness,” presumably in reference to the regulatory issues being faced right now.
Jim Muncy (left) with CASIS Chief Operating Officer Duane Ratliffe, Dr. Ioana Cozmuta from NASA Ames, and Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria at a panel discussion during the NewSpace 2013 Conference in Silicon Valley, CA from July 25th - 27th. During the discussion, one person in the audience became visibly frustrated over having had an idea for a commercial activity to test aboard the ISS and money to back it, but no access to CASIS because the idea was considered not relevant. Muncy referred to past examples of rock concerts or other artistic endeavors. Photo c/o Allison Rae Hannigan.

As an example of a regulatory barrier, Muncy discussed the International Space Station (ISS) and how safety issues have prevented companies from being able to demonstrate the capabilities needed for future voyages to the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and beyond. He sees the ISS is as a test bed to better explore space, and if businesses could be allowed to do more creative tests of enabling technologies, then they can mitigate risks to their business plans sooner rather than later, closer to Earth rather than farther away.

For instance, a process for storing and transferring cryogenic propellants will need to be worked out on orbit as part of some of the proposed endeavors such as going to Mars or the asteroids. Current NASA safety review processes make attaching tanks of propellant to the ISS too costly and prohibitive. Yet, the capability promises even more fuel on orbit so that companies can do more complex and safer operations in space.
Canadian space tourist Guy Laliberté aboard the ISS in October, 2009, introduced various acts which included U2, Shakira and Peter Gabriel as part of the "Moving Stars and Earth for Water" concert. Retired Canadian Space Agency astronaut Chris Hadfield also organized concerts while aboard the ISS.

During the session he moderated at the conference, “International Space Station on a Grander Scale: Probing Our Way Forward”, Muncy referred to the current space business and commerce environment as being designed more by engineers than by people who understand economics. Specifically in reference to ISS utilization, Muncy told me that the ISS was not really set up for research, no matter what NASA might state publicly. He said that if we really cared about maximizing research utilization and benefits, we would try to make the ISS the most effective and foremost laboratory available.

The reality, Muncy told me, is that ISS is “first and foremost” a human spaceflight platform, with research in second place.

Muncy used the relatively new, quasi-private entity, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) as an example of how space research is not being effectively promoted as a potentially commercial endeavor for the ISS. CASIS was set up to “maximize” ISS utilization, but Muncy referred to the CASIS business model as “screwy” and said that “NASA must give it a way to charge for some parts of it.” He said that a better way would be to have a more hybrid model to help pay the way, and he wondered how CASIS can motivate itself if they can’t charge for it.

Which led me to ask the question, “Where are the markets for space station utilization?” Readily-available markets would certainly make life a lot easier for CASIS to follow a more entrepreneurial model. In response, Muncy referred to the quip by author Arthur C. Clarke about the first amphibians on dry land -- they would never have thought of fire at that point. Which, he explained, means that we just don’t know yet what the markets are, and that we haven’t been able to do the work yet to find them. Also, he admitted that no single “killer app” seems to be out there, and that the market is more likely one of a constellation of uses. He said, “NASA really never turned over the keys of using ISS to users to give the greatest chance of maximizing utility.
Allison Rae Hannigan.

Muncy gets very ‘geeky’ with the technology he’s describing, but all he’s saying is that the processes in place now for the ISS are too strict for commercial businesses to be allowed to implement sensible development programs for future space enterprises. This is a barrier to entry for entrepreneurs looking to build viable business plans and seek investment.

He ended the conversation with the advice that we need to “force NASA and the ISS into a broader context as a system, rather than a project.” And Jim Muncy is the one in the front lines, working with NASA and the culture in Washington, D.C., trying to help NewSpace companies be able to get up that hill a little easier.

Allison Rae Hannigan, is an impassioned space industry specialist focused on development opportunities, marketing, communications and business related to microgravity research. She is also a free-lance consultant who has helped set up and manage email marketing campaigns, newsletters, and customer relationship management applications. 

She can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. It is very clear today that a change in culture is needed. Space agencies have spent over one trillion $ since the landing on the Moon, focusing fully on science and technology. In order to create a real market or the understand where the potential space markets can extend to, a new policy focused on space utilization and industrialization is absolutely needed.
    I work in the space sector since more than 30 years and I was dealing with microgravity when the Challenger was distroyed during launch. At that time, US and Europe were amply discussing about space industrialization and many words were spent about the concrete possibility that industries (pharmaceutical, for example) would have taken soon the step to get producing vacines in space. The Challenger accident however fully cancelled the space industrialization and still today it is very difficult to hear people using those words and concepts.
    Mankind needs such step today!

    To look a bit beyond, it is easy to be convinced that such step is really necessary and should be followed very soon by the espansion of mankinf into space, since the risk of civilization involution is increasing because of the lack of resources on our Mother Earth.

    Gennaro Russo
    President, Space Renaissance Italia


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