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Panel: Seamless Transition to Commercial LEO Space Station Needed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Sep-2015
Updated: 22-Sep-2015 09:00 PM

A panel of experts convened by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Alliance for Space Development (ASD) today made the case for accelerating the emergence of commercial space stations and other facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to avoid another gap in human spaceflight as International Space Station (ISS) operations wrap up in the next decade.  NASA should help by stating what its requirements will be post-ISS, thereby encouraging other potential customers to follow suit and motivating companies to build facilities to meet those needs.

Charles Miller, President of NexGen Space LLC, and Mike Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace, insisted NASA needs to do more to make commercial LEO activities a reality.  Miller is a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space.  Bigelow is building inflatable space modules, one of which will be attached to the ISS late this year or early next as a test.  (It is scheduled to be taken to the ISS on the next SpaceX cargo mission, SpX-8. A date for that launch has not been announced as SpaceX recovers from the failure of SpX-7 in June.)

Miller stressed that a "seamless, low-risk transition" from ISS to commercial space stations is critical, noting that current plans to operate ISS extend only to 2024, which is not that far away.  He listed four markets (not including NASA) for LEO services -- microgravity research, propellant transfer, transportation node, and on-orbit assembly.  Of those, he counted microgravity research as the most speculative.  The other three have much clearer markets, he contended:  the planned United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket with its ACES upper stage is the harbinger of a new paradigm in launch that will eventually lead to commercial propellant depots in LEO; the use of the ISS for deploying nanosatelites is a precursor of the transportation node concept; and the advantages of assembling modular geostationary (GEO) satellites in LEO and then moving them to GEO, instead of subjecting the assembled satellite to the stresses of launch, will stimulate an on-orbit assembly business.

Bigelow launched two test inflatable modules, Genesis I and Gensis II, a decade ago using converted Russian ICBMs, Gold recounted.  Next is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that will be attached to ISS and allow astronauts to enter one of these modules for the first time.   NASA launched the first inflatable at the beginning of the Space Age -- the Echo communications relay satellite -- and continued work under the TransHab program, but ultimately abandoned the concept.  Millionaire Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is investing his own money ($500 million according to Gold), to turn the concept into reality, with the goal of using such modules not just in LEO, but perhaps as habitats on the surface of the Moon or Mars.

One question is what federal agency would regulate in-space activities.  Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to supervise space activities by their non-government entities, but no U.S. government agency has been assigned that responsibility.  Gold called it a "regulatory gap."   Steph Earle of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) advocated for his office to be given that role.  Stressing that his office currently licenses only launch and reentry, not on-orbit activities, he said they are supportive of the concept because it is consistent with the 2010 National Space Policy.  

Miller disagreed that FAA/AST is the appropriate regulatory body, saying that transportation is part of commercial LEO activities, but much more is involved and perhaps the Department of Commerce should have a role, perhaps by expanding NOAA's regulatory responsibilities (it licenses commercial remote sensing satellites).  

FAA/AST was created in the early 1980s partially in response to the difficulties encountered by early commercial space launch companies, notably Space Services Inc. with its Conestoga rocket, because it had to get approvals from 16 different agencies to launch one rocket.  Carissa Christensen, Managing Partner of The Tauri Group, emphasized that it would not be cost-effective to go back to having multiple agencies in charge of regulating commercial space endeavors.  She further cautioned that the real barriers to successful commercialization of LEO, not to mention the Moon and Mars, are not regulatory, but economic:  "there is a thin line between pursuing a visionary dream and tilting at windmills."

Gold and Miller see NASA as holding the key.   Mr. Bigelow is putting in a "vast" amount of his own money, but NASA needs to "act like a smart customer" and "play some role as a catalyst" to get other governments and customers to sign up, Gold said.  He worries that there will be a "human platform gap" if decisions are not made soon where "the only station we will have is China's."   Miller was even more adamant: "NASA is actually hurting the industry by not being willing to state how much they're willing to buy" even though its need for LEO facilities "never goes away."  He advocated a "COTS-like partnership to stimulate" activities and markets, a reference to NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) public private partnership that led to the SpaceX and Orbital ATK commercial cargo systems that resupply the ISS.

The panel's bottom line was that there are many issues to be solved before LEO commercialization is a reality, from market demand (including NASA's) to regulatory oversight, but the most critical is to avoid a gap between the end of the ISS program and whatever commercial LEO facilities will follow.

NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier has, in fact, been raising similar concerns in testimony to Congress and elsewhere.  NASA also held a LEO commercialization workshop in December 2014, but specifics on NASA's needs have not been publicly identified.  One factor is when ISS operations will end, something that has not been determined.  The Obama Administration is committed to at least 2024, but ISS advocates anticipate it will continue at least until 2028 -- its 30th anniversary.

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