ISS and the Future of Commercial Operations in Low Earth Orbit


NASA recently released a new video timed to coincide with the premier of Star Trek: Beyond. For dedicated fans of TOS, the title, “On the Edge of Forever” is a bit perplexing given the fact that it is about the Space Station, not a “City on the Edge of Forever,” and Joan Collins is nowhere to be seen.

That aside, the video, which predictably focuses on the Station’s contribution to future deep space missions, is still a starting point for an interesting discussion regarding the relative value of ISS, and what its future will, or will not be. Over the coming weeks, InnerSpace will examine some of those issues.


In the movie, and after finally departing the immediate vicinity of Earth to which the Enterprise seemed bizarrely chained for the first two installments in a reboot of a series which is famously about going boldly where no-one has gone before, what does the ship do but go to where rather obviously a great number of ships have gone before, mostly laden with construction materials.

The stand-in for the home which must be protected is now Starbase Yorktown, which seems to have been envisioned as the diametrical opposite of the Death Star, an open-air enclosed jewel floating in space. It is perhaps one of the most gloriously rendered visions of a space station ever depicted on the big or small screen. If this is the future, and ISS is indeed the stepping stone, then by all means, bring it on.

Troublesome details like warp drive and teleportation aside, NASA wants you to believe we are already building that sort of future. Are we?

At the current time the United States is engaged in two very different human spaceflight efforts, the International Space Station program, which also encompasses Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew, and of course, SLS and Orion. For years conventional wisdom, and NASA planning, maintained that Station program must eventually be terminated in order to free up the budgetary funding wedge to allow the latter to do very much. While that may yet prove to be the case, the same Station that the agency wanted to splash in the Pacific in 2015 in order to fund Project Constellation, is now almost certainly to still be in orbit for at least 8 more years. And with each passing year, the number of stakeholders is growing.

As a recent Space Review article points out, whoever wins the 2016 presidential election will have a decision to make regarding the operation of ISS beyond 2024. With its focus on the “Journey to Mars” NASA has made it very clear that ISS is the last Earth orbiting space station it wants to operate, much less build. At the same time, the space agency would very much like to continue to have access to some sort of LEO facility for ongoing research beyond the mid 2020’s.

Two companies, Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space LLC, both hope to develop independent stations, with the latter, headed up by former ISS program manager Michael Suffredini, citing an internally commissioned study which found the market for such a facility could be as big as $37 billion in the next decade alone. The operative word is “could.”

Sensibly, both companies want to enter the market on a somewhat smaller scale by berthing a commercial module to ISS. Eventually, those units could be detached in order to form the building blocks of new facilities.

One roadblock, NASA only foresees making one berthing port available, the one which is currently taken by Bigelow’s BEAM expandable module. The bigger issue however, is the need to skillfully craft a transition from ISS as it exits today, to becoming a bridge to future private stations without either rushing, or impeding what is still a very nascent industry.

If there is one lesson to be learned from the history of commercial space companies thus far, it is that projects large or small inevitably take longer to implement than originally planned. For the growing number of companies currently working on business plans which utilize ISS, 2024 is not that far away.

This is one decision NASA needs to get right the first time, with no re-boots required. After all, the future may be depending on it.

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