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Axiom station
Axiom Space won a NASA award early this year to add commercial modules to the International Space Station, but NASA has put on hold a similar competition to support a free-flyer commercial station. (credit: Axiom Space)

Making the transition from the ISS

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In less than two months, the International Space Station will reach a milestone. On November 2, 2000, the Soyuz TM-31 spacecraft carrying Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev, and American astronaut Bill Shepherd, docked with the Zvezda module of the International Space Station. Since that day the station has been continuously occupied, meaning that, barring a calamity of some kind in the coming weeks, the station will soon surpass 20 years with people on board. That is a major accomplishment for a program that struggled for years to get off the drawing boards and into orbit.

“At some point in the future, we are going to incrementally phase down ISS operations,” McAlister said.

NASA and the other ISS partners will celebrate this milestone: the agency already has an “ISS20” logo and a countdown to the 20th anniversary on its website. What’s less clear, though, is how long people will remain on the station. It seems unlikely that the station will remain occupied for the next 20 years for technical and policy reasons, although there are no firm schedules, or deadlines, for winding down the ISS. (NASA is authorized to operate the ISS only through 2024, but Congress has shown an interest in extending that to as late as 2030.)

NASA’s vision is to gradually transition from the ISS to commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, with the agency as one customer of several. “At some point in the future, we are going to incrementally phase down ISS operations,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight programs at NASA Headquarters, during a session of the ISS Research and Development Conference held online August 27.

Those ISS operations, he said, will be phased out as use of commercial space stations are phased in. “It’s not going to be a ‘turn the light switch’ kind of situation. It will be very incremental.” The end goal, he said, is “sustainable commercial operations” with multiple providers and customers.

In that end state, NASA is potentially an anchor customer, but not the only customer, of one or more commercial stations. “We are always going to have requirement for low Earth orbit microgravity services, whether that be human research, crew accommodations, tech development; things like that,” he said.

Since NASA rolled out a LEO commercialization plan last June (see “NASA tries to commercialize the ISS, again”, The Space Review, June 10, 2019), the agency has been working to stimulate both commercial demand for LEO facilities using the ISS, while also seeking to support the development of commercial facilities. That included NASA’s selection of Axiom Space in January to use a docking port on the ISS for a series of commercial modules slated for launch starting in 2024 (see “Making the funding case for commercial space stations”, The Space Review, February 24, 2020.)

That plan also called for a competition to support work on a “free-flyer” commercial facility, in addition to the one for the commercial ISS module. But while NASA went ahead with the solicitation for the ISS port ultimately won by Axiom Space, the solicitation for the free flyer—formally known as Appendix K of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP—remained in limbo.

At last month’s conference, agency officials confirmed that NASA would not issue that free-flyer solicitation, at least for now. “We are reevaluating how we want to do that solicitation,” said Angela Hart, LEO commercialization manager at NASA, on the same panel as McAlister. “At this time we will not be moving forward with Appendix K.”

Neither Hart nor McAlister said why that solicitation was on hold, but both said NASA would eventually seek proposals for a free flyer. “We definitely want to do a free-flyer acquisition,” said McAlister. “I can’t promise any specific timelines associated with that, but we are definitely working on the free flyer and intend to release a solicitation soon on that once we get our strategy all agreed to internally.”

One factor may be money. In fiscal year 2020, NASA requested $150 million for its overall LEO commercialization effort, but Congress ultimately appropriated only $15 million. “That doesn’t enable a whole lot of spacecraft development,” McAlister said. “We need to do a better job there telling our story.” (NASA again requested $150 million for LEO commercialization in 2021, but the appropriations bill passed by the House at the end of July provided only $15 million; the Senate version of that spending bill has yet to be introduced.)

“ISS is really, or can be, an innovation accelerator. It will be critical to private sector development in the economic region of low Earth orbit,” Gerstenmaier said.

Another factor is who will compete for the free flyer. When Axiom Space won the ISS port, Bigelow Aerospace said it had declined to bid because of funding concerns, focusing instead on the upcoming free-flyer competition. But in March, Bigelow furloughed all its employees, citing shutdowns imposed by the pandemic in its home state of Nevada. While the state has since gradually reopened, there has been no sign of life at Bigelow. With Axiom busy with its ISS port award, that leaves Nanoracks as the leading candidate among companies that have expressed an interest in commercial space stations.

NASA officials emphasized in the ISS conference panel that they want, in their long-term vision, multiple commercial facilities with competition among them. “We want to use competition,” McAlister said, citing the benefits it saw from competition in the commercial cargo and crew programs. “We want to have, and intend to have, competition not only throughout the development phase, but also through operations. We do want to have more than one platform.”

A “false choice” between ISS and exploration

When NASA rolled out its LEO commercialization strategy last June, the person in charge of the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate was Bill Gerstenmaier, who had led that part of NASA for years. “We need to think of a different way of doing business,” he said at the rollout event for the strategy. “We have no idea what kinds of creativity and literally out-of-this-world ideas can come from private industry.”

A month later, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine reassigned Gerstenmaier to a senior advisor position. Gerstenmaier retired from the agency late last year, and early this year took a job as a consultant to SpaceX supporting its commercial crew program, working behind the scenes.

Gerstenmaier said little in public since being reassigned last July, until he appeared at an online town hall meeting September 5 by AIAA’s Los Angeles-Las Vegas chapter. While he didn’t discuss the events surrounding his departure from NASA, or his new work at SpaceX, he did emphasize the importance of the ISS is making that transition to commercial facilities in LEO.

“ISS is really, or can be, an innovation accelerator. It will be critical to private sector development in the economic region of low Earth orbit,” he said, citing the commercial activities ongoing on the station or planned for the facility in the next few years.

His concern, though, was that NASA might try to end the ISS too soon, before such activities can migrate to commercial stations. “I think there will be probably a push to retire the station with the idea that you’re going to free up funds for exploration,” he said. Doing so, he argued, was a “false choice.”

Making that transition from the government-run ISS to commercial stations with NASA and other agencies as just one group of customers was essential, he said, to sustainable space exploration and avoiding a repeat of the Apollo experience. “ISS is enabling the US private sector companies to explore and develop commercial markets in low Earth orbit. This is going to take time,” he said. “This effort is actually critical, I believe, to establishing and making exploration sustainable into the future.”

Gerstenmaier didn’t hazard a guess how long it would take. “I don’t know that there’s a hard date where the station needs to be retired,” he said, other than suggesting doing so in the near future would be too soon, given the immaturity of the commercial LEO ecosystem.

That includes not just commercial successors to the ISS but means of getting to them, like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. “We’ve had one successful flight, but I know from my past experience that that isn’t enough,” he said. “The transportation sector for crew still isn’t quite established yet. I think we need to give that a little bit of time to mature and get ready.”

“That’s a big question. The government cannot be the sole market for low Earth orbit,” Gerstenmaier said. “It’s up to the private sector.”

There’s also the time needed for markets driving demand for commercial space stations to emerge. Gerstenmaier mentioned tourism (allowing private astronaut missions to the ISS is one aspect of NASA’s LEO commercialization plan) and pharmaceutical research as two possibilities, but also suggested others not yet considered may yet emerge. “If you look at were big breakthroughs occur, they typically occur at the intersections of disciplines,” he said, in this case between the capabilities of spaceflight and various other fields.

“I don’t think I can predict where those areas are,” he said. The industry, he said, needs to show the world the benefits of spaceflight to those nontraditional users, “and then turn them free to figure out how to creatively use it.”

Will those commercial markets emerge, at least in time to make a smooth transition from the ISS to commercial stations? “That’s a big question. The government cannot be the sole market for low Earth orbit,” Gerstenmaier acknowledged. “It’s up to the private sector.”

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