NASA Seeks Ideas For Private Sector Use of ISS, Future Commercial Space Facilities

NASA Seeks Ideas For Private Sector Use of ISS, Future Commercial Space Facilities

NASA is seeking ideas on how the private sector can use the International Space Station (ISS) in new ways and ultimately “pave the way for private microgravity research facilities of the future.”

The Obama White House approved extending operations of the ISS until at least 2024 in January.   Previously it had committed only to operations through 2020 and is still seeking agreement from some of the ISS partners for that extension, never mind 2024.  ISS is a partnership of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries.

NASA often talks about extending operations to 2028, the 30th anniversary of when the first ISS modules were launched, but the idea is that whatever the end date, at some point, the ISS will end.  The question is — what then?  The goal is for microgravity research and other activities to continue on space facilities owned and operated by the private sector.

The NASA Request for Information (RFI) released today asks for ideas on how to make better use of ISS itself by the private sector and to lead towards follow-on private sector facilities.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier said the RFI is intended to “help identify how to open this … laboratory to the private sector in better and more practical ways — ultimately, helping to pave the way for private microgravity research facilities of the future.”

On Thursday (May 1), NASA and ISS researchers will showcase research activities taking place aboard ISS at an event sponsored by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) on Capitol Hill.  In June, AAS will hold its third ISS Research and Development conference in Chicago that brings together current and potential ISS researchers.

NASA is ramping up its efforts to demonstrate that its human spaceflight program is an integrated set of missions each leading to the next, starting with the ISS and ending with humans landing on Mars.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden emphatically drew the linkage between ISS and human exploration beyond low Earth orbit at a March 2014 congressional hearing before the House Science, Space and Technology.  He proclaimed that if operations of the ISS ended — because of the current friction between the United States and Russia, for example — he would recommend cancelling the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft currently being developed to take humans into deep space.  “I don’t want anyone to think I need SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station,”  he said.

At the same time, Gerstenmaier has begun stressing that the private sector needs to provide for continuation of operations in low Earth orbit as NASA shifts its focus to sending humans to lunar orbit and beyond.  This RFI is a step in that direction.  Responses are due by June 30, 2014.


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