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Space Travel Services

by Jim Davidson

      Space Travel Services was a bold experiment in business. It provided conclusive evidence of a substantial space tourism market and a first clue about how to serve that market. The venture was carefully planned, financed, and organized. However, it remains a cautionary tale about the effects of unbridled government interference in the space age.

      This page is about that story, but it is not that story. The author has a book-length treatment of the story, including horrifying levels of detail about the cruelty and unusual punishment of being incarcerated for 12 hours in "Old Harris County" jail, a jail so notorious that it was the subject of numerous federal rulings and finally torn down prior to 1993.

      Here is an excerpt from my curriculum vitae:

            Space Travel Services Corporation, Houston, Texas.
            Senior Vice President for Marketing, 1990 to 1993. Our team obtained contract with Soviet space agency Glavkosmos in October 1990 to put one American on the Mir space station for one week. Organized team of support companies in publicity, legal, sweepstakes administration, accounting, and advertising services. Wrote business plan, raised funds, negotiated with investors and suppliers. Developed publicity and marketing plan. Implemented press conference 17 December 1990 to promote "The Ultimate Adventure" sweepstakes opportunity. Subsequently worked with a variety of clients in product distribution, business planning, and management consulting projects.

      Here is an excerpt from Time magazine:
      Collage of images from Time December 1990

      Dramatis Personae

      Some of the key players in the adventure were David Mayer, company president; myself, senior vice president for marketing; Howard Stringer, chief financial officer; Art Dula of the Space Commerce Corporation; Telesphere long distance; Wholesale Telephone of Dallas, Texas; Ron Bliley and Bass Redd of Eagle Engineering; Alexander Dunayev of Glavkosmos, the Soviet Union's space agency; the Soviet official news agency and propaganda mininistry TASS; Peter Diamandis, Bob Noteboom, and Gus Gardellini of MicroSat Launch Systems; Deke Slayton of Space Services Incorporated of America; George Brown of Brown Nelson public relations; Alvin O. Carley, Richard Braastad, Steve Nixon, Cliff Carley, and other members of the Houston Space Society. Key government functionaries and bureau-rats of various stripes included George Abbey, Courtney Stadd, and other members of the National Space Council and its staff; Russ Turbeville, Jean Spradling Hughes, and Johnny Holmes of the Harris County District Attorney's office. Members of the legal (and illegal) team included Jim Dunstan of Haley, Bader & Potts; Arch McColl III; Blake Taart of Fulbright Jaworski; and William Tennenbaum. Interfering in various ways was Gordon Graves.

      It all began with a question. Howard Stringer, then president of the Houston Space Society asked me a question. The date was 12 May 1990, a Saturday, and the place was my home in Friendswood, Texas. The question was, "What is the one thing the Houston Space Society could do in the next ten years that would change the way people think about space more than anything else?"

      I remember the conversation vividly. We had all assembled at my home for a barbecue cook-out and for the monthly assembly of the newsletter which, at the time, was being distributed to about 1,100 people. David Mayer had decided it was essential to start a new tradition by throwing chicken bones from the barbecue onto the roof of my house. About half an hour later, he and I were standing in my living room when Howard caused a lot of trouble for the two of us by asking his provocative question. I remember Alvin Carley was standing there, and Steve Nixon later recalled that he was listening to the whole conversation.

      My response was very quick. I thought about this question for a few seconds, and said, "We could put one of our members into space."

      It was already a matter of background knowledge for all of us that the way to put someone into orbit was to go visit Art Dula, have him make a trip over to the Soviet Union, and get a contract for the Soviets to do it. We all knew that NASA would never fly an American civilian in space for love nor money, unless that person were a mission or payload specialist for one of the defense contractors, or a politician. NASA's one attempt to fly a more ordinary American, Christa McAuliffe, certainly an extraordinary teacher, ended in failure. Christa didn't reach space altitude, when Challenger came apart around her, sending her to her death in a dramatic impact with the sea. We think she fell about 9 miles.

      So the follow-on question was pretty obvious. I think Howard said, "That costs, what, about ten million dollars, right? The Soviets are supposed to fly that Japanese journalist later this year. How do we pay for it?"

      I was thoughtful, but Alvin supplied the answer. "A raffle," he said. "We raffle off the chance to fly in space. We're a charitable group, so we can have a raffle."

      And I remember David Mayer saying, "No, a sweepstakes. Like that 900 number sweepstakes that MTV had to give away Bon Jovi's house." We later learned that MTV had about a million phone calls at about a dollar each for a prize that was, after all, just a middle-class home worth about $100K, somewhere in New Jersey.

      It was obvious from that moment that we had something. It was peculiar, but it seemed like we could do something with it. More important, we had a business opportunity that ought to be operated by a business enterprise. David and I took a walk over to the community pool to ogle some of the teenage women there and talk about this important development. We quickly concluded that if we had the Houston Space Society organize this project, it would fall apart for any of several reasons. This project was too important to ignore, too significant to have the usual suspects at HSS criticize into oblivion, and too potentially lucrative to publicize. Space Travel Services was born.

      The rest of the story is covered in various news media articles. David has had the ambition of simply photocopying these articles as they appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Space News, Time, and Texas Monthly among others. Part of that story is how the assistant district attorney for special crimes lied to us about whether we were being told to stop, or lied to the newsmedia about the fact that we weren't being told to stop, or lied to a judge to get an arrest warrant saying that he had told us to stop in December 1990 and here it was February 1991 and we were getting ready to advertise our project.

      Some of the story cannot be told that way, since there were meetings, discussions, and events that simply did not get in the papers. But, I do agree with David that there is a lot of material in that newsprint, and it would be fun to see what people made of the story.

      Lessons learned
      We learned a lot from that fiasco. One of the key critical lessons was that the establishment of free human communities beyond Earth is being prevented, actively. It is not being prevented by any technical challenges. The technology to put men on other planets was well developed by 1969, now 36 years ago. It is not being prevented by a lack of market opportunity. Within weeks of Burt Rutan's successful Ansari X Prize victory, Richard Branson had some 7,000 customers willing to pay $200,000 to take a trip into space - roughly $1.4 billion of revenues.

      We think the market is even larger. By our estimates, in 1990 there were at least 350 million people worldwide who would volunteer the idea that they wanted to take a trip into space. I think that market is now at least 500 million people. I suspect that at least 50 million people could afford $20,000 for a trip into space, and would go to a hotel in Earth orbit if a vacation for that price were available. Yes, that would be a trillion dollars of revenue. With a trillion dollars, I could build hotels in orbit and palaces on the Moon to make Donald Trump insane with jealousy.

      So if the problems are not technical and are not economical, what's wrong? Why aren't we vacationing on the Moon right now? The answer is legal, bureau-ratic, and political. The people who brought you NASA are the defense contractors. The guy who invented NASA was a committed member of the Nazi party. The "conquest of space" is not being allowed by the powers that be because they cannot operate it as a corrupt project, and they are terribly, deathly afraid of the changes it would bring if it were operated by free enterprise.

      The Casualties
      Among the entities that were involved, in even a minor tertiary capacity, in that project which no longer exist, to our knowledge, were Brown Nelson & Associates; Space Commerce Corporation; Telesphere; Wholesale Telephone; TASS; Glavkosmos; the Soviet Union; Eagle Engineering; Micro Satellite Launch Systems; Space Services Incorporated of America; the National Space Council; and Space Travel Services itself. Our friend Alvin Carley passed away in July 1993. The project was probably not responsible for all these failures, but it is amazing how few remain.

Copyright 2005 Jim Davidson, All Rights Reserved.

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