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Part of NASA's new low Earth orbit commercialization effort includes offering a docking port on the ISS that could be used by companies to attach commercial modules to the station. (credit: Bigelow Aerospace)

NASA tries to commercialize the ISS, again

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When NASA decided to announce its long-awaited new initiative to support commercial activities on the International Space Station and low Earth orbit, it eschewed NASA Headquarters or its other centers as the venue for its announcement. Instead, the agency went to New York City, holding the announcement at the Nasdaq exchange, a form of stage-setting to argue that the station was open for business.

“Today is a very remarkable day,” Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer, said at the briefing. “NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities, and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before.”

“NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities, and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” said DeWit.

What the agency rolled out over the course of an hour was a multi-step approach to stimulating both the demand for facilities like the ISS as well as the supply of future commercial facilities that NASA hopes will one day succeed the station.

The one item that got the most attention was NASA opening the station to “private astronauts,” which could be space tourists or researchers. NASA says that, under their new plan, they will allow two such missions to the station, using commercial crew vehicles under development by Boeing and SpaceX, to fly to the station each year starting in 2020. Those missions would spend up to 30 days at the station.

The use of “mission” was vague in the announcement, leading some to conclude that it meant two individuals taking advantage of seats on those vehicles, in much the same way that spaceflight participants have previously flown to the station on Soyuz spacecraft. The agency, though, says “mission” refers to actual spacecraft flights to the station that could carry multiple people.

“We’re enabling up to two commercial flights with private astronauts per year, so depending on how many seats they want to carry, that would be a dozen or so private astronauts, potentially, per year,” said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters.

It would be up to those commercial crew companies, and their partners, to sell the seats and handle all the arrangements. “It’s not trivial for them to go out and just make an arrangement fly someone. They’re going to have to work to a myriad of companies to figure out how to make it happen,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

Those companies will have to strike agreements with NASA to enable those flights, and also pay NASA the costs of hosting those private astronauts on the station. According to a pricing policy released by NASA as part of the strategy, private astronauts will have to pay $11,250 per day for “regenerative life support and toilet” and $22,500 per day for supplies, including food and air. (By comparison, private astronauts can downlink data at just $50 per gigabyte, a more reasonable rate than some international wireless roaming plans.)

Despite those challenges, companies in the space tourism business welcomed that aspect of NASA’s announcement. “We’re pleased to see NASA’s announcement today, and applaud NASA’s efforts in consulting industry to inform their strategy and policy,” said Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, who arranges the flights of space tourists from Dennis Tito in 2001 to Guy Laliberté in 2009.

“We thought it was important that, rather than doing this piecemeal, one at a time, it was good to put it all together,” Gerstenmaier said of the various parts of the strategy.

“Bigelow Space Operations has made significant deposits for the ability to fly up to 16 people to the International Space Station on 4 dedicated SpaceX flights,” tweeted Bigelow Aerospace. The company didn’t elaborate on the dollar value of those deposits or provide information on any customers who may have signed up.

Bigelow and others will likely be interested in another aspect of NASA’s strategy. The agency announced it will release a solicitation this month, through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, to make available a docking port on the Harmony module to host a commercial module.

Gatens said there was “a strong desire to use a space station docking port as an initial step towards eventual commercial habitable destinations in low Earth orbit” among companies that participated in LEO commercialization studies funded by NASa last year. “Companies will be able to demonstrate commercial activities and operations while attached to this port on the station.” She said NASA expected to award access to the port to a company before the current fiscal year ends September 30.

NASA also plans to solicit, under a separate part of NextSTEP, proposals for partnerships on future free-flying commercial space stations. “NASA intends to acquire services from any viable commercial destination through a future solicitation after more information is available about the services that might be offered,” the agency stated in the announcement.

Companies that have previously proposed ISS modules or free-flying stations said they were encouraged by the news. “NanoRacks believes it is well-positioned to facilitate the further growth of the emerging low Earth orbit marketplace,” said Jeff Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, in a statement. “For now, we are analyzing the right pathways for us to compete for these new opportunities, both in terms of hardware and services.”

As part of the new strategy, NASA issued a new commercial use policy for the station. That policy includes a pricing list that covers cargo to and from the station and use of crew time and facilities there (the same pricing list also covers private astronauts.) Those resources will be equal to five percent of NASA’s allocation on the station.

This would allow not just commercial research, but marketing applications as well. “Approved activities must have a connection to the NASA mission, will stimulate the low Earth orbit economy, or need the unique environment or microgravity,” Gatens said.

There will still be limitations, though, on what NASA astronaut will be able to do with marketing activities in particular. “US astronauts will be able to participate in some marketing activities, if they’re sort of behind-the-camera activities,” Gatens said. “For those things that are beyond that scope, private astronauts can definitively do those activities.”

“There was a wide variety in market predictions,” Gatens said of commercial market studioes. “It makes forecasting the viability of these platforms difficult to do.”

The final elements of the overall strategy dealt with demand. NASA published a more detailed forecast of its needs in LEO, such as services it will need to acquire in a post-ISS era to carry out its missions. It also issued new research announcements soliciting proposals for commercial concepts in areas from in-space manufacturing to pharmaceutical research, as well as studies to address what it called “real and perceived barriers of potential new market entrants” and ways to stimulate demand.

Some of the plans announced last Friday were not new. NASA had discussed for the last few years offering a docking port on the station, including issuing a request for information a few years ago. Gerstenmaier said at the briefing that they decided to tie all those initiatives together into an overarching strategy rolled out all at once.

“We thought it was important that, rather than doing this piecemeal, one at a time, it was good to put it all together,” he said. “It took us a little bit of time to get that all together.”

Companies had been waiting increasing impatiently for those details. NASA funded 12 studies last year on LEO commercialization concepts. Those studies were completed at the end of last year, but NASA released one-page summaries of those reports only about ten days before the announcement.

Those reports, NASA said then, didn’t given them much guidance on the size of markets for commercial LEO activities. “There was a wide variety in market predictions,” Gatens said at a May 28 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s human exploration and operations committee. “It makes forecasting the viability of these platforms difficult to do. A lot of the markets are just emerging, and it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen.”

Before NASA released those summaries, some in industry were getting increasingly impatient with the lack of progress. They were pressing NASA to both release summaries of the studies as well as announce how it would spend $40 million in LEO commercialization funding provided by Congress for fiscal year 2019.

At the Space Tech Expo conference in Pasadena, California, last month, Mike Lewis, chief innovation officer of NanoRacks, said that funding could go towards addressing demand for the docking port. “There’s one port left on the station and everyone wants it,” he said. “Forty million dollars would just about build you a ‘T’ that could give you three more locations or more.”

But as novel as the concept of commercial use of the station might seem, it’s hardly a new idea. Almost 19 years before the press conference at the Nasdaq on this new commercialization strategy, NASA held a similar announcement across the country at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley about a partnership with a new venture called Dreamtime Holdings.

The “unprecedented agreement,” in the words of a NASA press release, “includes provisions to provide, for the first time, high-definition television coverage of astronaut activities aboard the International Space Station and on Space Shuttle missions” as well as “an easily accessible, Web-searchable, digital archive of the best of NASA's space imagery.”

“Not only does this bring the space program into partnership with Silicon Valley," said then-NASA administrator Dan Goldin in the announcement, “but the partnership also puts NASA at the forefront of the information age. This is innovative government at its best.”

While video from the ISS was only one part of the Dreamtime agreement, it took place during a time when the agency was emphasizing commercial use of the station even as its first modules were being launched. The agency created a commercial development plan for the station in the late 1990s and even a price list for ISS services. Meanwhile, Spacehab announced a partnership with Energia to develop a commercial module called Enterprise for the station’s Russian segment.

But that commercial demand never materialized. Enterprise never moved beyond the concept stage, and Dreamtime never provided those multimedia services (which eventually were provided by NASA instead.)

“We’re hoping that new capabilities can develop that can one day take over for the space station,” Gatens said, “and we will begin to do that transition when those capabilities become available.”

So what’s different this time? The ISS is certainly more capable, and the space industry has grown. There is already some commercial use of the station, with companies like NanoRacks flying experiments to the station as well as small satellites that are then deployed from the ISS.

There is also, though, a new urgency about commercial use of the ISS as NASA seeks to transition from it, and reduce its burden on the budget. DeWit noted at the press conference that it expected those commercial services to partially offset ISS operations costs, although that offset is likely to be small for at least the foreseeable future.

Gatens said that NASA wants to help stimulate those commercial capabilities so that NASA can use them, and gradually transition away from the ISS in the late 2020s or beyond without creating a gap. “We’re hoping that new capabilities can develop that can one day take over for the space station,” she said, “and we will begin to do that transition when those capabilities become available.”

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