NASA’s LEO Commercialization Studies Paint Questionable Outlook

NASA’s LEO Commercialization Studies Paint Questionable Outlook

NASA released brief summaries of 12 studies on the potential of commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO) that it solicited last year.  While a NASA-written description portrayed the results as demonstrating profit-making potential in a variety of areas, a presentation by the deputy director of the International Space Station (ISS) program this morning painted a far more questionable outlook.

NASA contracted with 13 companies last year to conduct 4-month studies on the potential growth of a LEO economy.  Bigelow Aerospace later withdrew. The other 12 were:

  • Axiom Space, LLC, of Houston
  • Blue Origin, LLC, of Kent, Washington
  • The Boeing Company of Houston
  • Deloitte Consulting of Manhattan Beach, California
  • KBRWyle of Houston
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation of Littleton, Colorado
  • McKinsey & Company, Inc. of Washington, D.C.
  • NanoRacks, LLC, of Webster, Texas
  • Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colorado
  • Space Adventures, Inc., of Vienna, Virginia
  • Maxar Technologies, formerly SSL, Inc., of Palo Alto, California

NASA wants to transition to a new paradigm for LEO operations where it is one of many customers of commercial space facilities rather than operating the ISS, which costs NASA $3-4 billion per year.  The goal is to either turn all or part of the ISS over to a commercial operator or deorbit the ISS and buy services from companies operating new commercial space stations.

Last year, NASA proposed terminating direct federal funding for ISS in 2025, although congressional reaction was highly negative and the agency no longer uses the 2025 date.  But the concept of transitioning to a commercial model remains.

These reports were an opportunity for interested companies to tell NASA what they plan to do in LEO.

NASA’s summary of what it learned from the 12 studies optimistically refers to “a vibrant future commercial space economy.”  The studies “identified that commercial ‘destinations’ could turn a profit from many areas” including R&D similar to what is currently conducted on the ISS, in-space manufacturing, video products for entertainment, sponsorship and marketing, accommodations for space tourism, in-space assembly and servicing, and transportation of people and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit.

The problem, though, is that NASA would have to the main customer.

ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens told the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations (NAC/HEO) committee today that the companies are “counting on NASA still to be an anchor tenant. Our desire is not to be an anchor tenant.”

She conceded that based on these studies, it does not appear that “we’ll see a dramatic reduction in what NASA will spend.”  Her conclusion matches a 2017 independent analysis by the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) at the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) that concluded “it is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025.”

Gatens said today that NASA soon will be issuing a new ISS commercial use policy to stimulate “sustainable demand” on top of activities already conducted through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).   She stressed that NASA does not want to compete with commercial ventures, but to leverage ISS to develop test markets.

Slide presented by ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee, May 28, 2019.

Several committee members argued strongly that the ISS should not be abandoned, pointing to the need for NASA to continue having astronauts in LEO for the indefinite future even as the agency focuses on sending crews to the Moon and Mars.  ISS Director Sam Scimemi assured them that NASA is committed to having astronauts in LEO for the long term, whether on ISS or another facility.  Gatens added that the Administration is committed to the transition plan which says ISS will not be deorbited until alternate facilities are available.  “There won’t be a gap in LEO,” she insisted.

Legislation almost passed Congress last year directing NASA to operate the ISS at least until 2030.  It failed for unrelated reasons and a new version cleared the Senate Commerce Committee on March 31.

One of the leading champions for the ISS in the Senate, Bill Nelson, lost his reelection race last year so will not be on hand to help pass the new bill.  However, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced today that Nelson is joining the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), so will still have a role to play in giving advice on the future of ISS and other NASA programs.  NAC will meet Thursday and Friday.

Nelson flew aboard a January 1986 space shuttle mission, STS 61-C, when he was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.  He was elected to the Senate in 2001. Last year he led the opposition to Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA Administrator, which passed the Senate on a 50-49 party line vote.  It appears the two have reconciled their differences.


This article has been updated.

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