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Review: Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit

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Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit
by Patrick Besha and Alexander MacDonald (eds.)
NASA, 2016
ebook, 140 pp., illus.

NASA is making a major bet on the future of commercial space activities in low Earth orbit. The agency has been increasingly emphasizing commercial use of the International Space Station, ranging from experiments performed there to the use of the station as a launch pad for smallsats and, just recently, soliciting ideas for installing a commercial module on the ISS (see “A stepping-stone to commercial space stations”, The Space Review, July 25, 2016). The goal of this is to stimulate both a demand for various commercial activities in LEO, and a supply of facilities to service that demand, that can continue after the ISS is retired some time in the mid to late 2020s.

Such an effort brings with it major challenges, some technical and some economic. It’s the latter that is the subject of Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit, a free ebook released by NASA this summer. It’s a collection of research papers commissioned by the space agency to examine economic issues associated with NASA’s commercialization efforts. While not a comprehensive exploration of the subject, the papers included in the book touch on some of the key problems, and potential solutions to them, that commercialization effort faces.

Those survey results include one potentially worrisome finding: those who flew experiments on the ISS appeared undecided about whether they expect to do research on the station in the future.

The five papers included in the book take a look at both big-picture issues, such as facilitating commercialization of work on the ISS, to a specific examination of the potential of one particular area, protein crystallization for drug development. These documents are research papers, rather than how-to guides, but do offer some recommendations for how NASA can help further commercial activities in LEO.

Some of those recommendations are common sense. One paper examines whether providing more information about previous research and development projects on the ISS would encourage future efforts. Not surprisingly, the authors conclude the answer is yes. Less clear, though, is how willing companies would be to share information they might consider proprietary with potential competitors.

That particular study was based in part on a survey of a subset of both those who have done research on the ISS and those that applied unsuccessfully for access to the ISS through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Those survey results include one potentially worrisome finding: those who flew experiments on the ISS appeared undecided about whether they expect to do research on the station in the future. While the small sample size (restricted in part to avoid a lengthy review of the survey questionnaire by the Office of Management and Budget required by the Paperwork Reduction Act) means the result may not be true for the full population of ISS researchers, it should serve as a cautionary note to NASA and CASIS.

Another paper examines the history of venture capital (VC) investment in space, including LEO activities. The authors of that paper concluded that there are several barrier to VC investment in commercial LEO endeavors on the ISS, including the lack of demonstrated commercial success of microgravity research there, a lack of payload capacity getting to and from the station, limited time and resources on the station itself, and a lack of awareness of the ISS for applied commercial research. A separate paper argues that NASA should avoid focusing too much on “early-phase” research on the station that are primarily of scientific interest, and devote more attention to applied research with clearer commercial applications.

Economic Development of Low Earth Orbit is not, as noted above, a complete guide to the issues of commercializing research on the ISS and handing it over to a private station some time in the next decade. Nor does the book provide a complete guide to potential approaches to bridge that gap from the ISS to a future commercial station or stations. It does, though, explore some of those issues in detail, and suggest some solutions to them, helping illustrate the magnitude of the challenge facing NASA and the commercial space industry in the next decade.