While NASA begins to shift its focus on the Moon, the agency is also looking at ways to continue the process of commercializing low Earth orbit.
Just this month, NASA opened the International Space Station for even more commercial opportunities, including the possibility for private astronauts to visit the outpost as early as next year. Bigelow Aerospace has already announced its intention to take advantage of this new shift in how the U.S. space agency conducts business in low Earth orbit.
“On Friday, June 7, 2019 Bigelow Space Operations (BSO) announced that last September of 2018 BSO paid substantial sums as deposits and reservation fees to secure up to four SpaceX launches to the International Space Station (ISS),” said Robert Bigelow, president of BSO and Bigelow Aerospace, in a June 11 company statement. “These launches are dedicated flights each carrying up to four people for a duration of one to possibly two months on the ISS.”
Bigelow’s long game
Bigelow Aerospace has been working for two decades to develop expandable space station modules utilizing a concept first developed by NASA. In the 2000s, the company launched two uncrewed prototype modules, Genesis I and Genesis II, to prove out the design.
The company then worked with NASA to build the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, also known as BEAM. It was launched to the International Space Station inside the trunk section of a SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft in April 2016.
BEAM was then attached to the Tranquility module on the ISS before being expanded in May 2016. In it’s packed dimensions, it was 2.16 meters long and 2.36 meters in diameter. After expanding, it was 4.01 meters long and 3.23 meters in diameter with a living volume of about 16 cubic meters. Following a two-year evaluation, the module is now being used for storage.
Bigelow Aerospace has plans to launch multiple larger stand-alone space station modules that are 330 cubic meters. It also has plans to use these designs for a Moon base, something NASA might be able to utilize once it returns astronauts to the lunar surface.
Commercializing low Earth orbit
For NASA’s part, it has been in the process of commercializing aspects of low Earth orbit for more than a decade. It started with the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services to help with the development of SpaceX’s cargo Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft.
This cargo program has since matured to the Commercial Resupply Services contracts, which will soon be entering its second phase and include a third resupply spacecraft, Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser.
NASA also opened up research opportunities on the ISS in the form of the ISS National Laboratory mandate. The goal was to expand the U.S. economy in space based research, applications and operations, according to the space agency. In 2011, the non-government organization called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (now just called the ISS National Laboratory) was chosen to be the sole manager.
Over the years, a number of companies have formed to take advantage of these new space-based opportunities. Companies like NanoRacks, for example, are helping to send not just small spacecraft and experiments for other companies into space, but also those for educational institutions from all grade levels.
Add to that NASA’s ongoing efforts to help SpaceX and Boeing develop human-rated spacecraft in the form of Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively, nearly all of the major pieces seem to be nearly in place for a low Earth orbit research and human spaceflight economy.
According to NASA, nearly 50 companies are conducting commercial research aboard the outpost. The agency has also worked with 11 companies to install 14 commercial facilities aboard the research laboratory.
Transitioning away from the ISS
Now with NASA taking aim on the Moon, the agency is looking to private companies to take up the mantle of responsibility for low Earth orbit access and research.
While there is no official end date for the aging International Space Station, it’s lifespan is closer to the end, rather than the beginning. Funding is currently expected through the end of 2024, however there is the possibility of extending that to the end of the 2020s. Regardless, the outpost will not last forever.
Add to that the enormous cost of operating the outpost — nearly $4 billion a year — and its hard to see the ISS itself being commercially operated. It’s more likely that one or more commercial space stations, possibly built by Bigelow Aerospace, would assume the shoes currently being worn by the ISS.
But before that can happen, it appears NASA is looking to foster at least some of that market by opening up the ISS for private astronauts.
NASA said it is looking to “broaden the scope of commercial activity” beyond what has already been done by the ISS National Laboratory and allow commercial manufacturing and production aboard the outpost. New commercial and marketing activities could be performed by both NASA and private astronauts. Overall, the U.S. space agency plans to initially allocate up to 5% of its annual crew resources and cargo capability for commercial activity.
However NASA isn’t allowing all activities. The space agency said to use the outpost’s facilities, the activities being performed must require the use of microgravity for its manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application; have a connection to NASA’s mission; or support the development of a sustainable low Earth orbit economy.
Additionally, companies must pay NASA. The space agency has a preliminary pricing structure that is expected to be updated every six months to adjust “as market forces indicate.”
Items companies will need to pay for include cargo (up and down), trash disposal, and ISS expedition crew time. Should a company opt to send their own people to the outpost, it is expected to cost roughly $35,000 a day per astronaut for up to 30 days. This doesn’t include launch costs.
All of this is part of the agency's transition plan. It will start with allowing companies to utilize the existing ISS facilities. Over the next several years it is hoped that commercial modules could be added to the space station as well as free-flying platforms launched to begin transitioning capabilities and assets.
The long-term goal is for all low Earth orbit operations to be handed over to the private sector with NASA purchasing services, such as access to a private space station, from commercial companies when and where needed. It is hoped that this would, in part, help NASA free up space in its budget for its deep space human spaceflight exploration efforts.
Exactly when this transition would fully occur is unknown. This is something that has never been done before and could take much longer than expected.
One of the first companies to announce its intention to take advantage of the new ISS opportunities is Bigelow Aerospace. It plans to do so through Bigelow Space Operations. How the company plans to close the business case is also unknown.
What is known is BSO expects to charge private astronauts a preliminary price of about $52 million per person to fly to the ISS using SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon, which is currently expected to be certified for human spaceflight in early 2020.
“As you might imagine, as they say ‘the devil is in the details,’ and there are many,” Bigelow said. “But we are excited and optimistic that all of this can come together successfully, and BSO has skin in the game.”