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Bigelow space station
A concept for a commercial space station using two Bigelow Aerospace B330 modules. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

America’s future in LEO? The possibilities and challenges facing commercial space stations (part 1)

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For more than 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, the 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 continuing presence of the US in low Earth orbit (LEO) once the ISS is gone?

At some point in the future the ISS 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?

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 FAA 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.

Though the ISS 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, according to 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 to 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 cislunar space and perhaps beyond, the agency has signaled its general intent to leave low Earth orbit behind. According to Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA 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.

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.

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 two-part 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 cislunar 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, previously the 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 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.

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” with 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 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) 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 that “show up.” As should be expected, if the United States comes to lack station capabilities after ISS, international partners or other 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. Commercial spaceflight, particularly that which supports human spaceflight, primarily occurs in LEO. 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 in the 2020s through 2030s, according to a study commissioned by Axiom Space.

Though NASA is preparing to move beyond LEO, 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.

Microgravity research, especially for biomedical products, has long been an area of interest for commercial application of LEO. Increasingly, concepts such as on-orbit additive manufacturing and on-orbit satellite assembly—which may require orbital platforms—are being discussed. Still, it remains to be seen whether any of 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 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.” (See “Bigelow still thinks big”, The Space Review, November 1, 2010.) 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 US government need in LEO. Though NASA is preparing to move beyond LEO, 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 July 2016 presentation to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), an independent advisory committee providing strategic guidance and recommendations to the agency, NASA showed an ISS research timeline for BEO risk reduction that extends into fiscal year 2027. 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 Science Committee’s space subcommittee that “the agency expects to support continued research needs in LEO after the end of the ISS program.” Sam Scimemi, the ISS director at NASA Headquarters, gave a presentation at the National Academy panel that predicted “the government would purchase services or capabilities to meet its demand for research or other human space flight objectives.” At a 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 Lynne 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, OSTP’s Roberts argued that, without some other crewed 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.”

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