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Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM module, installed on the ISS earlier this year, is a step towards full-scale commercial modules on the station and, eventually, commercial space stations. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

America’s future in LEO? The possibilities and challenges facing commercial space stations (part 2)

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ISS as private space station 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.”

Though BEAM’s primary purpose is as a technology demonstrator, Robert Bigelow suggested that it could also be used for commercial applications. However, little has come of the suggestion since then, and whether BEAM will be put to commercial use remains to be seen.

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.” (see “A stepping-stone to commercial space stations”, The Space Review, July 25, 2016)

Precedent for attaching commercial module to ISS already exists. In April 2016, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) was flown to the station and installed by late May. 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. According to NASA’s Jason 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, Robert Bigelow suggested that it could also be used for commercial applications. At a pre-launch press 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 then, and 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 a commercial station module aboard ISS, while Bigelow has been talking about the concept for some time.

Laying out his intentions in an interview following the NewSpace 2016 Conference, Michael 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 International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS), the company outlined plans for the module: it would add two docking ports to the space station and be “as large as the US laboratory module and Node 2 combined.” Meanwhile, at the April 2016 Space Symposium, 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 (see “Expanding the space station market”, The Space Review, April 18, 2016). 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 program 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.” By 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, he said, 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.”

Regardless of these companies’ plans or their feasibility, 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.”

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 feasibility, 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 July 2016 Senate hearing, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill 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 NASA requested interested companies to provide were 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.

Gerstenmaier said in October at ISPCS that 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. NASA expects to release a more concrete plan by the end of the year, although it has yet to do so with just two weeks left in 2016.

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.

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, Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (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 space subcommittee, 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. According to Crusan:

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—Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Orbital ATK—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, NanoRacks, Orbital ATK, and Sierra Nevada Corporation—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 Mike Gold of Space Systems Loral, 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.”

page 2: an ISS transition plan? >>