ISS, Private Stations and the Opportunity for Artificial Gravity

Orbital ATK's Cygnus: An Ideal Gravity Generating Machine? Image Credit: NASA

Orbital ATK’s Cygnus: An Ideal Gravity Generating Machine?
Image Credit: NASA

The FAA held a Commercial Space Launch conference in Washington, D.C. last week, during which a panel discussion on the second day provided a good deal of insight into how some players in the aerospace industry really regard the prospects for for future space stations beyond ISS. Spacepolicyonline has the complete breakdown, but here are some of the notable points.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s head of human exploration and operations:

(Summarizing) “First, it is the commercial sector’s responsibility, not NASA’s, to find the demand for future LEO space stations.  Second, future LEO space stations are not likely to resemble the International Space Station (ISS), but be smaller facilities with narrower purposes and they could build on existing or planned spacecraft.”

And here is how one major sees those prospects:

John Elbon, Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration at Boeing:

“To illustrate what it would take to have a commercial space station, he postulated building a comparatively simple station, more akin to Skylab than ISS.  He theorized that it might cost about the same as Starliner ($2.5 billion) to which operations costs would have to be added.  He put the annual cost of operating ISS at $4 billion a year ($2.7 billion from NASA plus $1.3 billion from the other partners).  Imagining those costs could be cut in half, he used $5 billion as the amount Boeing would have to invest.  “If I took that to the Boeing board and said I want to invest $5 billion in building this station, they would look at me…” and want to know where the return on that investment would come from.  They would want a minimum of a 15 percent return, which would be $750 million, plus annual operating costs of perhaps $2 billion a year, meaning revenue of $2-3 billion per year would be needed, he continued.   He listed a number of experiments being conducted on ISS today that have promise, but not enough without more R&D investment than is likely to come from the corporate world.  The possibilities need to be pulled together to “create a revenue stream that’s single digit billions as a minimum to close a business case that would allow us to then put a capability like this in orbit.”

Considering Elbon’s analysis, the takeaway from NASA, which is not planning on developing future LEO stations beyond the one it already has, should not be surprising. According to Gerstenmaier, the lifetime of ISS needs to be extended beyond the present limit of 2024.

While a further extension is sure to rile many of the Station’s critics, “Gerst” also suggested an interesting middle ground, encouraging current and future suppliers to follow the Russia’s lead and use departing spacecraft to perform commercial research rather than heading straight for home where possible.

Although apparently not part of the discussion, it should be noted that following such as course could open a path for correcting what is arguably the ISS program’s single biggest failure, the complete lack of human scale research into generating artificial gravity through rotation. Without a basic understanding of those environments, it is impossible to plan a credible human future in space. For example, we have no idea whether or not it is safe, or even possible, to maintain a successful pregnancy outside of the gravity conditions under which the human race evolved.

With each departing supply vessel being a fully controllable spacecraft built on a human scale, the opportunity to conduct such research is clear, and would constitute a legitimate step on the “Journey to Mars.” Or anywhere else for that matter.


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2 Comments on "ISS, Private Stations and the Opportunity for Artificial Gravity"

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  1. PK Sink says:

    Great idea. From your keyboard to NASA’s eyes…I hope.

  2. Tom Billings says:

    So, did the one company formed to do space stations show up? If so, what did Bigelow Aerospace have to say?

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