“We want to be one of many customers,” NASA associate administrator Robert D. Cabana told audience members at a commercial-space conference in Washington, D.C., in February.
It’s part of a sweeping transition at NASA to a job-to-be-done approach: Instead of asking aerospace contractors for a thing, in the form of a vehicle built to the agency’s dictates that it will then own, it’s giving them a task, subject to broader requirements, to complete as they see fit.
“They’re drawing the conclusion that it’s workable, that they can be a customer for a provider under commercial terms,” says John M. Logsdon, a space historian and professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “If they could do it for transportation to orbit, why not activity in orbit?”
MEET THE CONTENDERS
NASA’s first commercial-station contract came in January 2020, when it awarded $140 million to Axiom Space to build a series of modules to be docked to the ISS starting in 2025.
Axiom, which staged the first fully commercial mission to the ISS last year (and is one of this year’s Fast Company Most Innovative Companies honorees), plans later to detach the completed assemblage to operate as a free-flying station.
To start, all three free-flying-station concepts feature an early move-in day for astronauts.
“We don’t have to do construction in orbit,” says Clay Mowry, chief revenue officer at Nanoracks’ parent firm Voyager.
Northrop Grumman’s station would be ready for occupation after its first module’s launch. Orbital Reef’s would be open after a second launch, according to NASA’s 2021 press release; Blue Origin, a habitually silent company, did not return requests for comment.
These companies also should have much cheaper launch options than the Space Shuttle and the Russian Proton rockets that lofted most of the ISS. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy is already in service; two other U.S. heavy-lift vehicles, SpaceX’s much larger Starship and Blue Origin’s New Glenn, have yet to reach orbit.
Their concepts further minimize “extra-vehicular activity” spacesuit-required work.
“EVA is a very costly value proposition,” says Andrei Mitran, director of strategy and business development, civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman.
“Everything is run internally so that crewmembers can easily access and replace as needed,” adds Mike Baine, chief engineer and lead designer at Axiom.
Even solar power has advanced greatly over the last quarter century or so.
But with NASA only planning to pay for its share of a station, private operators need other customers. As Keith Cowing, editor of theNASA Watch news site and a former NASA manager who worked on station components in the 1990s, asks: “Is there something that can be done up there that people will pay for?”
While the prospect of space tourism can be intriguing enough to get people to inventory frequent-travel points (Nanoracks has even brought on Hilton to help design its station’s interiors), companies looking to do research and development in microgravity are the more likely customers.
“The healthcare segment shows a lot of promise,” says Mowry. Nanoracks, which already has an airlock and an external platform on the ISS, plans to host a research park on its station.
But other space agencies that lack their own stations could be potential customers. Mitran cites Canada, Europe, Australia, Japan, and India as possibilities, commenting, “We’re looking at this as an international business model.”
“NASA’s got to let up on some control, and the private sector’s got to take on some risk,” says Cowing.
“We made the transition a long time ago robotically, with the demonstration that communications satellites are money machines,” Logsdon adds. “So what we’re doing now is trying to make the transition to find out whether there are areas of human space activity that can generate profit for an owner.”
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