America’s future in LEO? The possibilities and challenges facing commercial space stations (part 2)
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.
Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute argued at a February 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,  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, Carissa Christensen of The Tauri Group 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, Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, 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 takeaways 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, at the time with Bigelow Aerospace, 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 Transportation 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 two years, a rather optimistic estimate, that leaves only six 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 is neither a comprehensive plan for transitioning from ISS to commercial stations nor 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, and 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 that 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, but is clearly necessary to 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. Though not at all an exhaustive list, among them are:
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 a thought-out strategy instead of relying upon organic developments.
The author’s perspective
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 companies can’t find a business case 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 NanoRack’s Jeff 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, over-budget 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 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, continuing iterating due to competitive pressures, could be put to increasingly effective use by NASA as the civil program explores 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 and which is 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 is 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.