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Axiom Space station
An illustration of a potential future commercial space station proposed by Axiom Space, one company with long-term plans for such stations. (credit: Axiom Space)

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

<< page 1: the case for LEO

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 a 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.

“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,” Crusan said.

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” and that 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, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance, 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.

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 basic systems than the ISS. He foresees dedicated research facilities aboard commercial orbital vehicles that would be operated telerobotically.

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.

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 Charles Bolden suggested at the AIAA Space 2016 conference in September 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 on 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.” (See “The challenges of commercializing research in low Earth orbit”, The Space Review, April 4, 2016)

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?” asked Frank Culbertson, president of Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Division. “We don’t have that yet.” Similarly, 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 percent pure insulin on orbit, [but terrestrial research] could create a 98 percent 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 The 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 manager of the ISS program 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.

There 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.”

However, CASIS’s overall effectiveness in achieving that goal has faced considerable questions. Such could perhaps be garnered intuitively from the persistent economic uncertainty regarding business cases for commercial stations. At any rate, a 2013 NASA Office of Inspector General audit and a 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, 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 the NASA 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, council members sounded worried 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 chairman Steve Squyres said that “it would be unfortunate if the crew time or upmass dedicated to CASIS slowed down progress in getting to Mars,” while 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 NAC 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.

There are indications that the next administration may seek to extend the United States’ commitment to ISS.

At the December 2015 NAC meeting, the Council issued equally indicting hesitancies regarding the prospects for commercial space stations. Wayne Hale stated, “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 cislunar 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:

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 meeting. 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 Commerce 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, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chairman of the commerce committee’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.”

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.

Some experts have spoken of NASA’s inability 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, Thomas 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 Astronautical Conference in September, 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.