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America’s Future in LEO? The Possibilities and Challenges Facing Commercial Space Stations

For over 15 years, the International Space Station has been a hallmark of the United States’ space program. As the largest and longest continually-occupied orbital platform in history, it has become an iconic representation of this period in space history. A product of large-scale international cooperation buttressed by the United States’ diplomatic, technical, and scientific expertise, ISS has been a cornerstone in American space leadership. Among the most expensive and complicated projects NASA has ever undertaken, it provides the United States significant opportunities and capabilities as the country begins to develop space close to Earth and explore space farther from home. However, like all past programs, ISS is not a permanent commitment. At some point in the future it will meet its demise in a fiery deorbit over the Pacific Ocean. When it does, will it mark an end of an era for the United States in space? More importantly:

What, if anything, will constitute the United States’ continuing presence in low Earth orbit (LEO) once the International Space Station (ISS) is gone?

This question is of considerable significance for the country’s future space effort. Emblematic of uncertainty regarding the United States’ long-term objectives and strategy for space, it is an issue that, as of today, remains unresolved. Though garnering only marginal attention in the media and by policymakers bracing for a new presidential administration, NASA’s trajectory suggests the need for a nuanced high-level look at this question soon, if not now.

For, per the Office of Science and Technology Policy’s Ben Roberts, the fate and future of LEO is “one of the most pressing [space policy] issues” that the next president will have to make in “the next 2-3 years.” Sharing this view is Michael French, NASA’s Chief of Staff, who noted at the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee’s October 2016 meeting that “the questions of an ISS follow-on and ISS extension start entering the budget horizon” as soon as 2019 – a near to mid-term issue for the new administration.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Though the International Space Station is currently scheduled to operate through 2024, its end is an inevitability. Aside from the extent of its needed utilization, the station’s hardware can only last so long – likely into but not much longer than the late 2020s or early 2030s, per NASA experts. Much of that hardware has been made to be replaceable, but replacing it to extend ISS’s lifetime would require a continuing funding commitment. In that timeframe, however, it is highly probable that NASA resources will instead go predominately in support of the deep-space human exploration that Congressional leaders and administration officials have laid out as the space program’s foremost mission.

Facing a limited budget, NASA will unlikely be able to afford a station program after ISS. NASA’s exploration roadmap does not permit a continuing presence in LEO sustained by the civil effort alone; preparing to move into cis-lunar space and perhaps beyond, the agency has signaled its general intent to leave low Earth orbit behind. As said by Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, the agency is “going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can… NASA’s vision is we’re trying to move out.”

If NASA is incapable of sustaining an American presence in LEO after 2024, then who will – and how?

Increasingly, government officials and the private sector are envisioning a commercial “takeover” of LEO. The hope is that commercial space stations, as a catalyst for and part of a vibrant economic sphere of activity in LEO, will allow government users to fulfill their needs while enabling business and research opportunities for commercial and foreign actors.

Still, despite growing consensus on this vision, significant questions and uncertainties regarding how it will be brought into reality, if at all, remain. Will the United States have outstanding needs in LEO after ISS is gone? What is NASA’s role in a transition toward commercial space stations? What ways could ISS be used to support that transition? As evidenced by recent statements from government officials and industry stakeholders, opinions vary considerably and, occasionally, contradictorily.

Answers are, at present, unclear. As the economization of commercial space stations remains to be realized, these answers necessarily underlie the direction NASA and industry will take toward a solution. Arriving at concrete positions through policies such as a “transition plan” should be an active priority for policymakers. Whatever the ultimate solution (or lack thereof) to this issue, it is bound to have significant implication for the future of the American effort in outer space.

Through a look at the statements and positions of industry stakeholders and government officials, this essay explores the topic as it stands today. Though hardly an authoritative analysis of the issue, it lays out the case for a continuing presence in LEO, outlines the vision for – and challenges facing – commercial space stations in the future, and describes the programmatic and policy progress made toward resolving this issue.

The Case for LEO

Far more than just a location to which NASA is currently committed, low Earth orbit is an enabling environment with a wide range of utility – geopolitical, scientific, and, increasingly, economic. The benefits of LEO, borne through a space station, underpin the United States’ application of space: it is an avenue for international cooperation and partnership, a laboratory for biological and technological research, and a proving ground and anchor for commercial development and activity.

Unless the United States develops and fosters follow-on station capability beyond ISS, it risks “losing” LEO. This risk has the potential to be as considerably destabilizing to the American space effort as a significant shakeup in NASA’s programmatic status quo; deorbiting ISS with nothing in its stead is tantamount to a broad concession of space capability and leadership.

Many therefore see a strong case for a sustained LEO presence, be it in the form of a civil or commercial station, after ISS is gone.

As an “entry point” into space, LEO is more accessible to commercial and foreign actors than locations such as cis-lunar space or Mars. It will likely remain, even into the post-ISS future, the most prominent location for international and commercial partnership. Sustaining an American station presence would leave open avenues to cooperate and collaborate with new spacefaring states; or, in a commercial LEO, provide them time on-station for purchase.

Mike Gold, while Director of Washington Operations for Bigelow Aerospace, a commercial space station company, observed that “new opportunities for international partnerships are opening in LEO” at an April 2016 National Academy of Sciences panel. Mirroring that view, Space Studies Board Chair Dr. David Spergel noted that “there are more ‘spacefaring’ nations now” than ever before and that new actors will want to utilize on-orbit platforms for their national purposes.

A concept of a Bigelow space station. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

This is the hope of prospective commercial station operators, who see foreign governments as necessary clients in their business models. While discussing his company in 2007, Robert Bigelow, President of Bigelow Aerospace, stated that they would look to “sovereign clients;” the company hopes to “try and identify maybe 50 or 60 countries… to provide them [time on a station].” Mike Baine, Chief Engineer of Axiom Space, another commercial station company, noted at the 2016 ISPCS Conference that “there’s a lot of interest by other governments looking to get into the space arena.” Some of those governments, Baine predicted, will likely be anchor customers for Axiom’s station.

As with any international partnership or arraignment, leadership is assumed by those countries which “show up.” As should be expected, if the United States comes to lack station capabilities after ISS, international partners (or potential customers) with national goals in LEO will turn to countries, some adversarial, which are actively developing them.

Russia seeks a future space station through possibly detaching, and then adding onto, its ISS modules sometime in the next decade. China is steadily working toward a modular station in the early 2020s, for which it is courting significant international participation. Noting the challenge presented by the growth of foreign space capabilities concurrent to the end of the ISS program, Scott Pace, Director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, warned at a February 2015 Senate hearing that,

“if China is able to offer pragmatic opportunities for space cooperation on its own space station… and the United States cannot, then other countries will likely find it attractive to forge closer relationships with China. Such a shift in international space influence away from the United States and toward China will, no doubt, impact a wide range of U.S. national security and foreign policy interests, both in space and in other arenas.”

Taking this argument further, Gold worries that “if America fails to field a new space station, U.S. leadership in this arena will quickly be subsumed by China.” Lest this happens, the United States should “should provide a clear vision to its international partners for what will come after the ISS,” including “if the path forward is a private sector station.”

As with the dynamics of international partnership, the commercial rationale for LEO makes a compelling case for a sustained American presence.

The predominance of commercial spaceflight, particularly that which supports human spaceflight, occurs in low Earth orbit. As the commercial space industry continues to broaden and grow, this will likely remain true – especially as new commercial applications are envisioned which make use of, or indeed require, on-orbit platforms. The addressable market for a commercial station could be as large as $37 billion dollars in the 2020s through 2030s, according to a study commissioned by Axiom Space.

Microgravity research, especially for biomedical products, has long been an area of interest for commercial application of low Earth orbit. Increasingly, concepts such as on-orbit additive manufacturing and on-orbit satellite assembly – which may require orbital platforms – are coming prominently to the fore of discussion. Still, it remains to be seen whether these concepts can be made profitable enough to allow commercial self-sustainability; or, as is especially the case for microgravity research, become more economical than terrestrial analogs. Nonetheless, the long-term success of these concepts and the markets that develop as a corollary will only come into fruition through sustained access to LEO platforms upon which companies may experiment and operate.

Beyond hosting commercial applications, an importance of LEO platforms is the support they provide to commercial launch services. While satellite launches may provide needed revenue for rocket companies, station resupply has come to be the “primary driver” in the shift from government to commercial LEO access. Gerstenmaier noted this at the 2013 FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, saying that “station is driving this market.”

He further suggested that “station has the potential to drive a fair amount of privately funded launches, separate from the U.S. government, and that could be the real benefit” of a space station. Industry stakeholders likewise see a need for more destinations as companies offering launch services grow in the years ahead. Addressing that point at the NewSpace 2015 Conference, Jeff Manber, Managing Director of NanoRacks, made note that there will soon be “five ways [via different launch providers] to send humans to and from space… we need destinations.” The functions of a platform, such as deploying nanosats as NanoRacks does, “makes destinations relevant. I don’t want to be in a world where we’re just launching rockets, sending off satellites.”

Indeed, supporting commercial launch and resupply has been a clear priority for Bigelow, who noted that his company “will be a substantial consumer of rockets and capsules and all kinds of hardware.” Commercial station companies, of course, will be wholly reliant upon launch services for their operations; in the absence of government-furnished resupply, commercial launch companies will be the sole providers of crew and cargo to their stations. To that end, Bigelow has, at various times, partnered with Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX in support of developing and contracting commercial vehicles that could resupply its stations.

Finally, there is the issue of U.S. government need in LEO; though NASA is preparing to move beyond, the agency’s research for a deep-space exploration campaign remains incomplete. Alongside that, several government officials and industry experts expect a continuing need and role for NASA in LEO.

Most notably, NASA has identified a need to conduct LEO research in support of its beyond-Earth orbit (BEO) objectives on a timeline which extends past the current ISS program policy. The ISS’s end-of-life, per this policy, is currently scheduled for 2024. However, in a presentation to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) – an independent advisory committee providing strategic guidance and recommendations to the agency – in July 2016, the NAC Human Exploration and Operations Committee showed an ISS research timeline for BEO risk reduction that extends into FY27. In effect, NASA anticipates requiring ISS beyond its currently scheduled timeline to complete the full slew of its research needs.

Alongside its currently identified research requirements, there may be forthcoming needs for which NASA will require a LEO platform. Jason Crusan, Director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, noted in a May 2016 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Space that “the agency expects to support continued research needs in LEO after the end of the ISS program.” Sam Scimemi, Director of ISS at NASA HQ, gave a presentation at the National Academy panel which predicted that “the government would purchase services or capabilities to meet its demand for research or other human space flight objectives.” At the December 2015 NAC meeting, former astronaut Ken Bowersox argued that NASA will continue to need LEO access “if for no other reason than to allow astronauts some experience before they sign on to longer duration missions.” Mary Lynn Dittmar, CEO of Dittmar Associates, suggested at the NewSpace 2015 Conference that “NASA will continue to need an environment in which it buys down those risks [of BEO human exploration] to a certain point.”

Moreover, Roberts argued that, without some other manned platform with which to conduct research, it will be very hard for the United States to “go beyond LEO.” At a February 2015 workshop on ISS utilization, Scimemi, said that “we, the government, want another viable space station before this one ends” to prevent a detrimental gap in low Earth orbit. He observed that “if the space station ends in the 2020s and there’s nothing to follow it, we will have lost all of this effort in research and benefits to humanity.”

Considering Commercial

Considering these rationales and recent developments in the private space sector, many in industry and the government are beginning to turn their eyes to commercial space stations as potential follow-on capability after ISS. While ISS is a unique platform with unique capabilities borne from unique circumstances, a commercial station may be able to duplicate its functions – or find other applications for LEO that benefit the space effort.

A concept of Axiom Space’s free-flying station. Credit: Axiom Space

Some, particularly advocates in industry, foresee this. In the eyes of Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, commercial space station companies have been “founded to help create a new era in space enterprise;” commercial stations would “provide unique opportunities to entities – whether nations or corporations – wishing to have crewed access to the space environment for extended periods.” Tory Bruno, Chief Executive and President of ULA, agrees. At a press conference at the 32nd Space Symposium announcing ULA’s partnership with Bigelow, he pointed out that “this is a fundamentally new mission in space… we haven’t had one of those in 20 or 30 years, arguably.” Developing a commercial space station infrastructure in LEO would be “creating new things to do in space, making the space economy larger.”

This potential is seen by NASA officials, too. At the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in February 2015, Gerstenmaier acknowledged that “there needs to be a follow-on space station… what [NASA’s] hoping for is that the private sector picks that up.” Alex Hill, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, reiterated this view. “Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-earth orbit.”

In perhaps the most emphatic declaration of NASA’s hope for private stations emerging, Crusan said at the May 2016 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Space that,

“It is NASA’s intention to transition LEO to private platforms and capabilities enabled by commercial markets, academia and government agencies, including NASA, with interest in LEO research and activities… The progress and trajectory of private sector space activity is such that NASA is working toward the transition of LEO to be a commercially-led economic sphere by the mid-2020s.”

Describing a need for a commercialized LEO, he concluded that,

“Private enterprise and affordable commercial operations in LEO will enable a sustainable step in our expansion into space — a robust, vibrant, commercial enterprise with many providers and a wide range of private and public users will enable U.S. industry to support other government and commercial users safely, reliably, and affordably.”

While enthusiasm for commercial stations may be growing, there are varying opinions about their defining designs and characteristics – a reflection, perhaps, of varying opinions about the true extent of their economic viability. Bigelow’s expandable B330 habitats, once inflated, have a volume of 330 meters – enough to, if attached to ISS, expand the station’s volume by at least 30 percent. Some of Bigelow’s station concepts, such as its Station Alpha, feature multiple B330s attached to each other, thereby offering enough capability to house multiple, perhaps even a dozen, astronauts.

Bigelow’s concept for “Station Alpha.” Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Yet Gerstenmaier suggested that commercial stations will instead likely “be very single-purpose, small and entrepreneurial” and possibly be built upon existing or planned spacecraft. John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at Boeing, thinks that future commercial stations will be comparatively simple, perhaps more similar to Skylab than the ISS. Roberts, too, believes that “more economical concepts than the ISS are emerging.” The first step toward a commercial station would be to experiment with more basics systems than the ISS; he foresees dedicated research facilities aboard commercial orbital vehicles that would be operated telerobotically.

Regardless of what characteristics may define a future commercial station, the challenges facing the station industry to even arrive at them are substantial.

Despite NASA’s hope that commercial space stations emerge by the end of ISS, the agency has stressed that it is neither positioned nor suited to directly support the economization effort needed for them to be viable. While NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden suggested at the September 2016 AIAA Space and Astronautics Forum and Exposition that NASA will “facilitate [a] transition” to a commercialized LEO, it is, per Gerstenmaier, “the commercial sector’s responsibility, not NASA’s,” to find the demand for future space stations. NASA, as he points out, “is not an economic development agency.” Station companies, when developing a business case, should not “assume what we need… listen to the demand.”

Developing economic sustainability is fundamental for the success of commercial stations. The funding pressures drawing NASA away from ISS equally restrict the agency from serving as the long-term primary client of the companies operating them. Recognizing this, NASA officials have reinforced the need for the private sector to find a successful continuing business case that would provide revenue independent of government contracts.

“It is our hope and our goal that the commercial market, which is emerging in low Earth orbit today, will become self-sustaining,” declared Bolden in his speech. Gerstenmaier, at the 2013 FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, drew an association between that goal and NASA’s disinterest in economically supporting commercial stations. “If we just stay with the government-funded research, I don’t think that’s sustainable in the long term… at some point we need to show that there’s a market advantage, there’s a reason that commercial companies want to be in space, independent of the government.”

At present, however, the key challenge for the private sector is finding that business case.

The search is for a “killer app” that will generate demand for a commercial station and provide sustainable profitability. Highlighting this, Gold predicted that “if we do find the killer applications, or even applications that can at least be profitable, we are looking at not just modules on the ISS, not just one private-sector free flyer, but multiple stations.”

What that killer app is, however, remains to be discovered. Until it is, the optimism driving the commercial station constituency will remain simply that.

“What can we not do without that we have to get from space?” inquired Frank Culbertson, President of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Division research. “We don’t have that yet.” Similarly noting the issue, Paul Reichert of Merck, a pharmaceutical company that has done crystal growth experiments on ISS, has “always had visions of doing manufacturing in space.” However, “before you can do that, you need to show a unique benefit. I don’t have that data yet.”

Even microgravity research, long seen as and hoped to be a profitable purpose for a space station, faces uncertainties. “You won’t find bigger believers in the revolutionary capabilities that microgravity R&D can bring,” said Gold. “However, that market is very immature right now, and it is going to take a long time to grow. I don’t think we’re going to see it in the next 10 years.” Gerstenmaier, acknowledging the threat hanging over microgravity pharmaceutical research, pointed out that “we could create a 99% pure insulin on orbit, [but terrestrial research] could create a 98% pure insulin through genetic engineering. That won because they could turn to the market faster and be responsive”

As such, the demand for commercial platforms right now is “very uncertain,” according to Carissa Christensen, Managing Partner of the research firm Tauri Group. The technological complexities and investments involved in a platform are so large that “business cases are generally not yet proven.” Mike Suffredini, formerly NASA’s ISS Manager and now President of Axiom Space, acknowledges this. “We’ve made great strides, but we have a long way to go to be at the point where we can pay our own way… where we are is not enough for investors to separate themselves from the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to get started.” Addressing the crux of the problem, he noted that the commercial space industry isn’t yet mature enough to warrant the development of a commercial station.

Questions of CASIS

Intersecting the issue of a viable business case for private stations is the role of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the non-profit whose purpose is to support space commercialization in the “National Lab” portion of ISS. With a $15 million share of NASA’s budget each year, CASIS’s mission is to attract private researchers to ISS through grants, outreach, and access to station time. In finding the “killer app” or viable commercial rationale for a private station, “the national lab, CASIS, is critical to the development of that demand,” according to Scimemi.

However, CASIS’s overall effectiveness in achieving that goal has come under considerable question. Such could perhaps be garnered intuitively from the persistent economic uncertainty regarding business cases for commercial stations. At any rate, a 2013 OIG audit and 2015 GAO report found significant communications and reporting lapses in CASIS’s operation, including a failure to benchmark measures of performance. The OIG audit concluded that “fostering a market for ISS research remains a significant challenge for CASIS.”

Beyond organizational failures, several factors play into the challenge facing CASIS – factors which are symptomatic of the overall struggle in determining profitable on-orbit commercial activities.

Among them is little interest on the part of private entities for research aboard ISS unless there is, per the OIG audit, a “substantial infusion of government funds.” Much of the research conducted under CASIS’s banner has been basic research, toward which for-profit companies may be reluctant to allocate funds – especially when the chance of profitable results is unknown. To that, Cynthia Bouthot, Director of Commercial Innovation and Sponsored Programs at CASIS, acknowledged that companies don’t “understand why they would think of diverting any of their research or technology development to station.” Moreover, the OIG audit noted additional limitations to commercial research on ISS, including the “frequency of tests and time dedicated to the experiment” and “the number of samples that can be conducted concurrently and repeatedly.”

CASIS’s issues may be resolved through more effective outreach to companies and because of changing circumstances in the space industry. Some see a basic lack of awareness on the part of terrestrial industries about the benefits of microgravity as the leading impediment to the search for commercial space applications. Ioana Cozmuta, Microgravity Lead at AMES Space Portal, sees that “the awareness is extremely low still out there.” Still, noting positive trends, she continued that “the gamechanger is commercial space and this burst of capabilities” for microgravity research. The success of commercial launch may lend support to expanded users of ISS’s commercial research component… “the price per pound is going in the right direction.”

Such may be the case. At the March 2016 National Academy panel, Scimemi defended CASIS, saying the organization “is making great strides in advancement on board the ISS to utilize their assets that are available to them through the national lab… they have come up to speed with a vengeance.”

NAC’s Worries

Despite Scimemi’s assurances, however, members of the NASA Advisory Council remain skeptical of the both CASIS’s effectiveness and the viability of future commercial space stations.

Following a presentation by CASIS leadership during the March 2016 NAC meeting, the Council issued worries about the perceived lack of progress the non-profit was making. Thomas Young noted that “if private enterprise thought that there was a real commercial opportunity in LEO, they would go for it,” further suggesting that “CASIS should get out of the way.” He opined that CASIS “doesn’t seem to have a high probability of success.” Former NAC Chair Dr. Steve Squyre said that “it would be unfortunate if the crew time or up-mass dedicated to CASIS slowed down progress in getting to Mars,” while Dr. Spergel concurrently cautioned “against relying on CASIS to develop a commercial market for LEO because it would interfere with getting to Mars.”

From the discussion, the Council issued a recommendation that NASA examine its research work to see if time used at the National Lab would better be spent on exploration research. The recommendation stated that the Council “feels that it would be beneficial for the agency to better understand the effect that the resources being devoted to the ISS National Laboratory might have on the important research needed to reduce technology and human health risk for the Journey to Mars.” In effect, driven by dual concerns that ISS will end before research for NASA’s Mars campaign is complete and that CASIS is not effectively conducting its mission, the Council suggested that NASA should reprioritize exploration research over commercial research – an indictment of the present-day utilization of ISS toward LEO commercialization.

At the December 2015 NAC meeting, the Council issued equally indicting hesitancies regarding the prospects for commercial space stations.

Wayne Hale stated that “it remains to be seen whether there could be a reasonable return on investment” for building a commercial station; Young concurred, saying that NASA should encourage commercial opportunity in LEO “but not spend much time on it.” Instead, NASA should “move on to the deep space exploration program as soon as possible,” adding that he did not think “that the commercial opportunities were strong.” Likewise, Scott Hubbard opined that the “Journey to Mars and cis-lunar space is not dependent upon commercial development in LEO” and that “the LEO business models that are likely to succeed would not require humans in LEO.”

Following the discussion, the Council issued a recommendation stating that,

“Even after a shift of focus to cis-lunar space and beyond has occurred, NASA may need to maintain some capability to get astronauts to low Earth orbit. If the Agency concludes that such a capability is necessary, it would be best not to rely on a presumed commercial demand for human access to LEO that may or may not materialize. Taking steps to encourage commercial activity in LEO may not be adequate to guarantee NASA long-term future access to LEO.”

ISS’s Indefinite End Date

Perhaps in recognition of NASA’s continuing research needs and NAC’s concerns, NASA officials have begun to downplay a definitively set date for when it will stop using the facility.

Speaking at the National Academy panel, Scimemi suggested that NASA no longer sees 2024 as its firm end date for ISS. Rather, the date will be determined and perhaps extended based on “task completion.” This aligns with Gerstenmaier’s presentation at the March 2016 NASA Advisory Council. It noted that, when determining when NASA will stop using the station, the agency will focus on considerations such as:

“Short term crewed habitation missions are being executed in cis-lunar space while ISS is still operational and being utilized; exploration research and technology/system development activities requiring ISS as a testbed are essentially complete; value benefit of the ISS has been sufficiently achieved; there is an expanded commercial market and broad private/government/academic demand for Low Earth Orbit (LEO)-based platforms that are based on private and/or public/private business models.”

Of course, the decision of when ISS’s funding commitment runs out – a driving determiner of its lifetime – is a legislative matter. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, passed in late 2015, extended ISS’s lifetime to “at least 2024” from the previous end date of 2020. Some leaders in Congress, however, want to see it extended longer. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), Ranking Member of the Senate committee responsible for NASA, has made clear that ISS’s lifetime should extend to the “end of the decade.” During an August 2016 visit to Johnson Space Center, Ted Cruz (R-TX), Chairman of the Senate’s space subcommittee, said that ISS should continue flying through 2028.

Likewise, there are indications that the next administration may seek to extend the United States’ commitment to ISS. Though the incoming Trump administration’s space policy, mainly laid out in op-eds and comments by campaign space policy advisor Bob Walker, is heavy in rhetoric yet still sparse in detail, the topic has come up a number of times. Speaking about ISS at the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee’s meeting before the election, Walker said that he “can’t imagine that, in 2028, you’re going to dump a $100 billion asset into the ocean.” Among the list of space policy priorities he laid out for the Trump campaign was “starting discussions about including more ‘private and public partners’ in operations and financing of the International Space Station, including extending the station’s lifetime.”

To that end, the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2016,” a bill currently in Congress, addresses ISS’s end date. At the time of this writing, the legislation, largely designed to lock-in place NASA’s programs of record to protect them during the transition to a new administration, faces a tight deadline for passage. Moreover, the bill’s provisions have changed substantially as it has gone through conference between the House and the Senate. Nonetheless, in the publicly available version of the bill dated to late November, Section 303 calls on NASA to evaluate the “feasible and preferred service life of the ISS… through at least 2028, as a unique scientific, commercial, and exploration-related facility.”

Extending ISS’s lifetime to 2028 or beyond carries possible benefits and potential drawbacks. It would provide NASA the opportunity to complete its currently anticipated portfolio of necessary research as identified in the July 2016 NAC meeting. Likewise, depending on the path forward for commercial utilization of ISS, it would provide industry more time to develop a business case for their private stations. Should that case develop, however, ISS’s continuation could be a burden for industry. In Suffredini’s opinion, so long as ISS is in operation it will attract users that could otherwise buy time on a commercial station – complicating their business case.

At any rate, the legislation’s passage remains in question; even if it does pass, there is no guarantee that ISS will indeed be extended. Some experts have spoken of NASA’s incapacity to sustain ISS through 2028 while carrying on a concurrent BEO exploration campaign, especially if funding levels remain flat. At a February 2016 hearing before the House Space Subcommittee, Young said, reiterating NAC concerns, that NASA does not have enough money to “both send humans to Mars and support the International Space Station beyond 2024 and a choice must be made between them.”

Meanwhile, as Scimemi noted at the International Aeronautical Conference in late September 2016, there is an international dynamic to ISS extension. He felt that it “too early to think about extending ISS to 2028” as NASA needed “to get ESA to agree to extension to 2024 first.” The European Space Agency recently did, though as part of its increasingly constrained budget; there is no certainty that the Europeans, or other partners in the ISS cooperative agreement, will agree to yet another extension. For, as Pace noted in his testimony, “political commitments may fade” amidst developments and fiscal pressures in the years to come.

ISS as Incubator

Against this backdrop – time running down on ISS and uncertainty about a lifetime extension, a continuing rationale for a LEO presence, consensus on a commercial LEO future, and questions about CASIS’s effectiveness – the pressure to find a sustainable business case that generates demand for private stations is increasing. Right now, in the eyes of Andrew Rush, President and CEO of Made in Space, a company doing additive manufacturing work aboard ISS, “is an inflection point for continued development of commercial activity in space.”

However, new ideas for utilizing ISS in support of commercialization are concurrently beginning to materialize. Beyond using the National Lab for research, some see value in ISS being a platform to test and experiment with commercial station hardware. Bigelow, at the ISS Research and Development Conference in July 2016, suggested this while saying, “starting with the purpose going forward for the ISS, I couldn’t think of a better metaphor than as an incubator.”

Bigelow’s BEAM module expanding aboard ISS. Credit: NASA

Precedent for attaching commercial module to ISS already exists; in April 2016, Bigelow’s “Expandable Activity Module” (BEAM) was flown and attached to the station. NASA awarded a $17 million contract to Bigelow in 2012 to construct the module, which is designed to be a testbed for larger expandable modules that may support NASA’s future habitation needs for long-duration spaceflight. Per Crusan, “we’re fortunate to have the space station to demonstrate potential habitation capabilities like BEAM.” After testing is complete, the module will be detached from ISS and deorbited in 2018.

Though BEAM’s primary purpose is as a technology demonstrator, Bigelow suggested that it could also be used for commercial applications. At a pre-launch conference, he said that his company has “four different groups today that want to fly experiments and different payloads to BEAM, and deploy those within BEAM.” Though he didn’t specifically name them, he said that two represent countries and the other two corporations. Bigelow hoped that “maybe in half a year or something, we can get permission from NASA to accommodate these people in some way.” However, little has come of the suggestion since the pre-launch conference; whether BEAM will be put to commercial use remains to be seen.

Moving beyond technology demonstrators, Axiom Space has begun making plans to attach and utilize commercial station module aboard ISS, while Bigelow has been talking about the concept for some time.

A rendering of Axiom Space’s module attached to ISS. Credit: Axiom Space

Laying out his intentions in an interview following the NewSpace 2016 Conference, Suffredini said that Axiom hopes to “fly a module that begins its life at the International Space Station” which would then later detach from ISS to form the core of a free-flying station. At the 2016 ISPCS Conference, the company outlined plans for the module: it would add two docking ports to the space station and be “as large as the U.S. laboratory module and Node 2 combined.” Meanwhile, at the April 2016 Space Symposium Conference, Bigelow said that his company would like to attach its B330 inflatable module – notionally named the Expandable Bigelow Advanced Station Enhancement, or XBASE – to ISS.

Both companies hope that their modules, while attached to ISS, could explore the commercial utility of a private station.

In an interview given while still serving as NASA’s ISS Manager, Suffredini identified a need for new applications of ISS that would advance the commercialization effort. He noted that NASA needed to find ways for “more and more customers [to] utilize ISS.” Doing so, “someday somebody can create a business case based on real data that says if I build a low Earth orbit platform, I can make money, and at that point we’ll have somebody build a platform that will replace ISS.”

Along those lines, Bigelow has suggested several functions, both in support of commercialization and to advance NASA’s mission, which his module could serve. If his company’s module is installed, “we’re also asking permission to be able to commercialize time and volume.” More specifically, the company’s hope is that,

“NASA would be the primary customer for that structure, and that we would be given permission to commercialize. Essentially, we would be timesharing. So, where we’re going is we’re offering discrete quantities of time—a matter of one or two weeks, to 45 days—to various kinds of clientele.”

Bigelow suggested that his module could attract additional commercial cargo and crew traffic to ISS, potentially helping NASA along with commercial users of ISS. He predicted that NASA, not having to add additional astronauts or resources, could make use of added space at a fraction of the cost it would take to develop its own module. Through the module, he said, “NASA maximizes the utility of its staff that is already on station. It may also be a facility that partners are going to get excited about. We think this will add life beyond 2024 to the ISS.”

Bigelow’s proposed XBASE attached to ISS. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

Suffredini, too, thinks that a commercial module “will help us transition from research and manufacturing and everything else done on ISS on a future platform.” He noted that the Axiom module has attracted commercial interest for its possible use for in-space manufacturing and assembly and could have other uses ranging from research to tourism. Like Bigelow, he also proposed that the module would be available for NASA’s use when not being utilized by his company, thereby “helping the process of transitioning research done on the ISS to future stations.”

Still, regardless of these companies’ plans or their realizability, the clock is ticking. To make money with his station, Suffredini believes that Axiom needs to get to ISS by 2020 or 2021… “we have to get to orbit fast.” His concern is that “if ISS goes away, and commercial hasn’t established itself, we won’t have this opportunity” to establish a business case for private space stations.

NASA’s Initiatives

The hopes and intentions of commercial station companies aren’t lost on NASA officials, who have begun taking steps to establish programs that support them as they seek to build and use their stations.

Of these recent initiatives, the most important may be the opportunity NASA is preparing to offer industry to fly a module on ISS. At a Senate hearing on July 2016, Gerstenmaier said that NASA plans to provide one ISS docking port for a commercial module “at some point in the future.” Building off that port, the company could “undock from the station and be the basis for the next private sector station” – a reiteration of Axiom Space’s plan. Meanwhile, NASA posted a Request for Information, “Advancing Economic Development in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) via Commercial Use of Limited Availability, Unique International Space Station Capabilities,” which seeks to inform the agency what that plan will look like as well as gauge industry interest.

Companies responding to the RFI were offered several of ISS’s present-day “unique capabilities” when shaping their proposal. Among them were unused Common Berthing Mechanism ports – if the potential commercial user could demonstrate the capability to maintain ISS functionality – and ISS’s trunnion pins. The Common Berthing Mechanism attachment site at Node 3 Aft was suggested as a possible future capability. The RFI noted that the agency’s budget did not include any dedicated funds to enable the use of those capabilities, though ISS’s allocated budget could be available to cover “integration work if warranted.”

Among the information the RFI requested interested companies to provide, it sought plans on how their module activity would “intersect with the CASIS role to foster use of the National Laboratory.” Reflecting NASA’s hope that industry will not need to lean heavily on the agency for future funding as a client or sustaining partner, companies were asked to suggest ways that “NASA can incentivize a partner to stimulate economic development in LEO with minimal to no unique NASA direct investment.” Moreover, the RFI asked for suggestions of metrics that NASA could use to gauge and evaluate the success of the module and its commercialization efforts, such as:

“approaches for NASA to evaluate the plans for achieving and maintaining an appropriate balance between the responders’ commercial objectives and the Agency’s broader objectives of advancing economic development and private sector demand for research in space” as well as “minimum criteria to be met in order to retain on-going use of the capability.”

According to Gerstenmaier at the ISPCS Conference in October, 11 companies submitted responses to the RFI. At the International Astronautical Congress, Scimemi said the agency was “quite happy with the response…  we were happy with the number and the quality.” With that, NASA has decided to move ahead with “the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.”

As Gerstenmaier also noted at ISPCS, NASA is still evaluating the responses to the RFI. The agency is currently “struggling” with figuring out how to make the best use of the single available docking port available, considering the interest expressed by several companies. Nonetheless, NASA expects to release a more concrete plan by the end of the year.

While the specifics of NASA’s plan remain to be seen, this RFI signifies a major step toward employing ISS’s capability as a testbed for commercial station modules; equally so, it represents the agency’s acknowledgment of the commercial sector’s interest in flying those modules. Noting that significance, Gerstenmaier said at the July NASA Advisory Council meeting that “this is probably one of the most important RFIs we’ve put out in a long time… this will really set the future of what we’re going to try and do as we think of operations beyond the space station.”

Meanwhile, another NASA program – NextSTEP – is helping foster the development of commercial station hardware.

Run through NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Division, the NextSTEP program seeks “commercial development of deep space exploration capabilities to support more extensive human space flight missions in the Proving Ground around and beyond cislunar space.” At the May 2016 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Space, Crusan described the program’s aims:

“NASA and industry will identify [through NextSTEP] commercial capability development for LEO that intersects with the Agency’s long duration, deep space habitation requirements, along with any potential options to leverage commercial LEO advancements towards meeting NASA long duration, deep space habitation needs while promoting commercial activity in LEO.”

Built around the public-private partnership model, the program intends for developed capabilities to have spinoff applicability in LEO. The rationale, as argued by Crusan, is that,

“Because habitation capabilities are key to both commercial activity in LEO and to human deep space exploration, and because public-private partnerships can potentially help make habitation capabilities more affordable, NASA has been undertaking substantial private-sector engagement to define habitation concepts, systems, and implementation approaches to achieve NASA’s goals for deep space and enable progress towards LEO commercial space station capabilities.”

The preliminary NextSTEP announcement, issued in October 2014 with awards issued in March 2015, involved four companies – Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and Bigelow Aerospace – working on concept studies, concepts of operations, and technology investigation for an “Exploration Augmentation Module” – a habitat module to support NASA’s Orion spacecraft on missions beyond Earth orbit. Through Phase 1, NASA entered fixed-price contracts with these partners valued at $400,000 to $1 million.

In April 2016, NASA issued a solicitation for the subsequent phase of the program, NextSTEP-2. Through this phase, selected companies are given approximately 24 months to develop ground prototypes and/or conduct concept studies for their deep space habitats. It provides an opportunity for companies that did not participate in Phase 1 studies to “propose their innovative approaches that will both satisfy NASA’s initial NextSTEP Phase 1 objectives and the objectives contained” in NextSTEP-2. An objective of NextStep-2, per the solicitation, is to further determine how the agency’s habitation needs intersect “with private industry interest in commercial activities, for example in LEO.”

NASA awarded contracts to six companies – Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and NanoRacks – in August 2016. The combined total of all the awards, covering work in 2016 and 2017, will be approximately $65 million, with additional efforts and funding continuing into 2018.

NextSTEP will allow NASA to gain, through commercial support, a key piece of exploration hardware without needing to bear the costs alone. Industry, meanwhile, will be able to leverage the hardware developed for potential commercial use in LEO as station modules. Of course, this alone will not be enough to catalyze a sustainable case for commercial stations. Some, such as Gold, who made note of this at a July 2016 Senate hearing, see room to “bolster the NextSTEP program”  by having NASA commit to “launching the habitat and paying the private sector partner for the right to utilize some its volume and resources” while industry funds “the vast majority of the habitat’s ongoing operation expenses via commercial activities.”

An ISS Transition Plan?

These programs are surely avenues of opportunity for private station companies and indicative of NASA’s hope for a commercialized LEO. However, they hardly constitute a comprehensive, long-term strategy for how the agency will use ISS to support the “transition” to commercial stations that its leadership has talked about. The lack of such a plan, according to experts both inside and outside the agency, poses considerable challenges toward commercialization.

Pace argued at the 2015 Senate hearing that “we need to have very thoughtful discussions and decisions very soon about not just ISS extension but, post-ISS, what that looks like… in aerospace terms, [2024] is right around the corner.” By saying that “if you’re not planning today what you’re going to do next, you’re planning to go out of business,” he highlighted the need for a long-term NASA strategy around which industry can align its efforts and which supports a predictable environment for investment. At the National Academy panel, Christensen expressed concern that NASA might divest from ISS before a commercial replacement is available. As such, she noted that it was reasonable to “ask the government what LEO facilities will exist in 2024, but not to ask that of a new industry.”

In a 2014 presentation at a NASA LEO commercialization workshop, Scimemi recognized that “industry is looking to NASA to define its demand in the future and to lay out an ISS end-of-life strategy, BEFORE they invest significant contributions for flight.” Such a strategy, he acknowledged, “informs industry where we are going and aids in raising of capital if investors can see how commercial desires fit within NASA’s plans.”

The presentation summarizing the results of that workshop found consensus among participants on these points. Among the take-aways of the workshop were that “NASA needs to develop its strategic plan, forecast its own needs for LEO beyond ISS, and be intentional about transitioning from supplier to customer.” Workshop participants also thought that NASA should be proactive in “outsourcing services related to operations and enabling more commercial services with government as customer.” At a Secure World Foundation event on commercial space stations in September 2015, Gold and Charles Miller, President of NexGen Space, raised similar points. “NASA needs to play some role as a catalyst,” Gold said, by agreeing to purchase capacity on commercial stations or supporting their development through a partnership like the one NASA used for commercial cargo and crew systems. Per Miller, “we need a seamless, low-risk transition to private, commercial space stations.”

Most notably, the summary presentation concluded with actionable steps for the near-term; leading among them was for NASA to “complete [the] strategic planning process and roadmap.”

Yet at the 2015 FAA Commercial Space Conference, Gerstenmaier conceded that “there’s a lack of a low Earth orbit strategic transition plan. We haven’t laid out how we’re going to do this transition… we definitely need to work on that.” While Scimemi noted at the National Academy panel that NASA has an “internal plan” for transitioning ISS to the commercial sector, he also acknowledged at the November 2016 SpaceCom Expo that the agency has “no good idea yet how to do it.”

The Issue at Hand and Questions Remaining

Such is the situation presently facing commercial station companies. While enthusiasm for commercial stations is growing and opportunities – such as NASA’s RFI and NextSTEP program – are opening the trade space, tremendous uncertainty about the viability of their future hangs over them. The pressure to find a viable business case is intense; assuming commercial modules are attached to ISS in 2 years, a rather liberal estimate, that leaves only 6 years for the station business to mature to a point of self-sufficiency. The experience of on-orbit commercial research has so far suggested against the likelihood of rapid breakthroughs. Still, the clock is ticking. As Pace noted, 2024 in aerospace terms is not very far away.

Compounding this issue is a lack of clarity on NASA’s part. Scimemi noted that industry is looking for NASA to define its post-ISS research needs and lay out a clear ISS end-of-life strategy before they begin providing crucial investment for commercial station companies. Yet, to date, NASA has suggested little about its continuing research needs aside from its general intent to “purchase services aboard private stations.” While NASA has begun to define a flexible end date for ISS that includes successful commercialization as a decision-point, it hasn’t clearly quantified or qualified what exactly that metric looks like regarding commercial stations. Meanwhile, conversation continues in Congress about an ISS extension.

NASA officials have themselves conceded the point, but to an outside observer such as this author it appears there isn’t a comprehensive plan for transitioning from ISS to commercial stations or certainty in the role that NASA will play both during that transition and beyond. Clearly, however, NASA is not only uniquely positioned in technical capability to support that eventual transition, but may be positioned to help catalyze investment into commercial stations and applications aboard them. NASA has continuing research needs; a commercial module may, as Bigelow and Axiom Space have repeatedly suggested, support and satisfy them. If NASA seeks an ISS extension, a commercial module may be a means to add to the station’s hardware’s lifetime. Of course, NASA is highly constrained in funds – which may, understandably, restrict any partnership NASA develops with commercial station companies. At the least, the agency should clearly articulate what it will and will not use commercial modules for during the extent of its remaining lifetime and what work commercial modules may conduct while attached.

Beyond that, however, NASA and Congress would do well to engage now in long-term planning for an ISS transition, addressing the outstanding questions and issues that industry stakeholders have identified and laying out a defined strategy for ISS that encompasses civil and commercial roles, responsibilities, and avenues for partnership until 2024. Such a plan could address the challenges facing on-orbit research and incorporate ideas that seek to resolve them, such as the concept of a “zero-g, zero-tax” write-off. What exactly that transition plan would look like or entail is beyond the knowledge and expertise of this author, yet would nonetheless be necessary progress from the present-day status-quo of ad-hoc programs and verbal guarantees given at conferences.

There are, of course, considerable factors influencing the ultimate decisions and direction that NASA takes that can be readily identified. As this issue moves forward, they will surely be topics of discussion among policymakers, NASA officials, and industry stakeholders. Some of these questions lack easy answers – pointing even more to the need for long-term planning in the present. Though not at all an exhaustive list, among them are:

  • The international dynamic. If commercial station companies are to utilize the ISS in a manner more extensive than what the current RFI entails, NASA will need to secure partner buy-in. Would the ISS partners be amenable to commercial companies utilizing and perhaps even supplementing ISS hardware?
  • Hardware and structural concerns. To what extent will ISS be able to accommodate additional commercial modules? How would NASA guarantee that commercial modules won’t cause structural issues aboard or damage to ISS? How would liability be handled should something “go wrong” aboard a commercial module or if a module negatively influences the rest of ISS?
  • NASA’s continuing research needs. Does NASA indeed have continuing needs for research after ISS is gone and, if so, what exactly are they? Would NASA be willing to pass onto commercial modules the hardware and facilities needed to continually conduct civil research while they’re aboard ISS? How about aboard free-flying stations? If so, how would that arraignment be structured contractually and operationally?
  • The challenges of LEO commercial research. How will NASA leverage commercial station modules to enhance CASIS’s effectiveness? Will the modules’ companies be allowed to commercial operate independent of CASIS? Would NASA allow flights of independent non-agency scientists, researchers, and crew to these modules to conduct experiments? Would NASA place restrictions on the hardware and experiments independently flown to these modules? If commercial modules attached to ISS require more frequently resupply flights, would they be contracted through NASA or independently – if the latter, how would that interface with NASA’s governance of ISS?

It may well be that a research breakthrough producing a “killer app” occurs on a commercial ISS module’s first day of operation. Bigelow and Axiom Space may find their entire business case resting on foreign governments willing to purchase their station service. Or, it may be that there is no business case at all and that foreign governments are uninterested in a commercial station. At this moment in time, each possibility is equally likely. However, for an issue as significant as the United States’ continuing presence in LEO, the result – be it success or failure – should be driven by thought-out strategy instead of relying upon organic developments.

The Author’s Perspective

For this author, the success of commercial space stations serves as a litmus test for the current wave of commercialization occurring in space. Stations are merely facilities, like an office building is merely a building – it’s what is done within them that matters. If no business case is found that will validate the need for and sustain operations of commercial space stations, it will be hard to conclude that space is a place where, as said by Manber and Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, “people can live and work.” As such, it is understandable that commercial station companies are pushing for NASA to provide them support and assistance to a degree that may extend beyond NASA’s resources. The continuing commercialization of LEO and beyond is ultimately at stake.

Moreover, the situation facing commercial stations reflects a changing paradigm in the space arena – and the continuing hesitancies to accept it. Commercial actors are beginning to envision doing the operations that once were the sole domain of government space programs. That the United States in LEO may come to be defined by corporate actors instead of NASA can be a source of alarm for some. That those actors will need to rely on successful business cases and withstand market competition instead of wholly sustaining themselves on the steady, if limited, flow of taxpayer dollars can be a source of skepticism for others. It may well be that these companies’ plans don’t pan out – in which case, little is lost from the status quo of a civil space program that has historically operated in fits and starts. It may too be that NASA supports commercial station companies which then go under, thereby “wasting” taxpayer dollars – in which case, little is changed from the status quo of a civil space program with a history of program cancellations, overbudget projects, and plans to abandon ISS anyway.

Yet, should these commercial station companies succeed, they will enable continuing government research in LEO and provide companies and corporations room to experiment with ever-new applications and technologies for space. They will serve as the crucial LEO infrastructure within which the democratization of space takes place. As evidenced by the point of the NextSTEP program, their habitat technology, likely continually iterating to beat out competition, could be put to more and more effective use by NASA as the civil program goes off to explore deep space. A growing market and more entrants into the station industry would permit different approaches in technology, design, and operations – innovation sorely needed for a field as difficult as spaceflight that’s inherently lacking in a government-run, fiscally constrained space program. Finally, commercial station companies, run by American citizens working in the United States, would ensure the continued presence of American values and American commerce that would otherwise be lost as American LEO leadership is subsumed by adversaries, such as China, that don’t share them.

Considering that, if pushing back the “Journey to Mars” – a program already question as a new administration takes office – is what’s needed to catalyze and support the success of American commercial space stations in Low Earth Orbit, this author believes it’s an acceptable concession to make.


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1 Comment

  1. Mike Ryan

    Nice article Cody

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