NASA Hoping for Private Sector Successors to ISS

NASA Hoping for Private Sector Successors to ISS

NASA may have gotten the White House’s blessing to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating until at least 2024, but it won’t last forever.  Speaking to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee today, Bill Gerstenmaier expressed hope that private sector space stations will materialize for the longer term future.

Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, spoke to the Research Subcommittee of the NAC HEO Committee this morning.  The bulk of his remarks dealt with how best to make use of ISS for research during its lifetime, but he also pointed to the need for the commercial sector to build “mini space stations” as places for future research.

While praising the White House decision to keep ISS operating through 2024 because it gives researchers certainty that they will have time to conduct experiments, he also said “I don’t think there’ll be another government-sponsored space station.”   He believes the ISS will be fine through 2028, but he pointed to the desirability of companies flying single-purpose space stations thereafter and the government could buy services or research time from them instead.

In the meantime, ISS facilities are being well utilized today according to Sam Scimemi, Director of ISS at NASA Headquarters, who also briefed the subcommittee.  Almost 84 percent of the science racks in the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS) are occupied with experiments right now, he said, along with 76 percent of EXPRESS racks.  He noted that utilization of available research sites on the exterior of the ISS is only 50 percent and his office is working on filling the rest of the sites.

The availability of transportation systems to take experiments up to the ISS (upmass) and back to Earth (downmass) is OK for now, he added, but demand is expected to exceed capacity beginning in 2015.

One research limitation is the availability of crew time, he continued, and NASA is talking to Russia about making Russian crew members available to conduct some of the research.  Scimemi said they were negotiating a barter arrangement for 5 hours per week of Russian crew time.   The ISS is split into the USOS segment (which includes hardware from the United States, Europe, Japan and Canada) and the Russian segment (Russian modules and systems).  A typical ISS 6-person crew is composed of three Russians and three from the United States and its western partners. NASA is looking forward to increasing the crew size to seven (three Russians, four from the western partners) once commercial crew capabilities are available.

NASA is also looking at other upgrades to the ISS now that it has permission to extend operations through 2024.  They include upgrades to video and data systems, new freezers, high throughput facilities for materials science and cell science, and additional Earth-pointing and Sun/space pointing platforms, Scimemi told the subcommittee.

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