Planning for the End of ISS


On Tuesday, the Secure World Foundation and  the Alliance for Space Development (ASD) held a luncheon panel discussion in Washington, D.C. entitled “Commercial Space Stations in LEO: Preparing for the Future.” Marcia Smith has good breakdown of the event at Spacepolicyonline.

Two of the panelists were Charles Miller, President of NexGen Space LLC, and Mike Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace.

From the SPO account:

“Miller stressed that a “seamless, low-risk transition” from ISS to commercial space stations is critical, noting that current plans to operate ISS extend only to 2024, which is not that far away.  He listed four markets (not including NASA) for LEO services — microgravity research, propellant transfer, transportation node, and on-orbit assembly.  Of those, he counted microgravity research as the most speculative.  The other three have much clearer markets, he contended:  the planned United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket with its ACES upper stage is the harbinger of a new paradigm in launch that will eventually lead to commercial propellant depots in LEO; the use of the ISS for deploying nanosatelites is a precursor of the transportation node concept; and the advantages of assembling modular geostationary (GEO) satellites in LEO and then moving them to GEO, instead of subjecting the assembled satellite to the stresses of launch, will stimulate an on-orbit assembly business.”

Note: The transition from ISS to any follow-on commercial station is likely to prove to be delicate challenge, and it is difficult to overemphasize how important it is that NASA does not screw this up. Despite its rough beginnings and early near-death experience, ISS is turning out to be a critical component in the evolution of commercial space, and an argument could be made that it is in fact the critical element at the present time.

For all it has accomplished, it is difficult to believe that SpaceX would be where it is today if not for ISS and the COTS/Commercial Resupply programs. Together they provided what amounted to a 14 order initial block buy for the Falcon 9, a number which allowed the company to pursue development in an environment which would not otherwise have been available. Now, the specific characteristics of ISS resupply, low orbits, reduced total payload, are creating the ideal circumstances in which to test first stage recovery and reuse on what is still a paid operational mission. If it is successfully demonstrated, the space age changes forever.

Although Orbital ATK’s COTS driven achievements are more modest to date, and its Antares booster appears to have a limited future, the Cygnus cargo vessel has resupply implications which stretch across the inner solar system. ISS is even paving the way for its most likely successor, an expandable Bigelow Aerospace space station, in providing a testing opportunity for that company’s BEAM module which was scheduled to launch on SpaceX CRS-8 mission. Finally, any successor station will naturally be dependent on the availability of a crew transport solution, two of which are presently be developed to serve the needs of ISS for its remaining life.

With ISS now being utilized in ways which were never envisioned (satellite launch, laser communications testbed, etc.)  when it was first proposed as Space Station Freedom, the discussion of when and how to transition to a next generation statement is likely to prove a lively one, and perhaps it should begin with a serious examination of whether or not the facility, or at least some of its components could be privatized rather than dropped into the Pacific.

And then there is this: So much of what NASA has achieved has been completely destroyed at the end of its operational life, leaving only engineering models to stand in for the actual artifacts in Earth bound museums. Is destruction truly necessary? How much would future space-faring generations treasure the ability to actually visit and study humanity’s first “permanent” outpost in orbit?

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