NASA Seeks To Commercialize Low Earth Orbit, without Commercials


WASHINGTON — NASA wants to catalyze a commercial market for research and manufacturing in low Earth orbit that will outlast the international space station, but with at most a decade of station operations remaining, the agency — which is not allowed to advertise the outpost’s science capabilities — is still casting around for ideas on how to spark the revolution.

Now that ISS is fully operational and NASA has hired commercial cargo haulers to bring experiments to and from orbit, the agency feels it has solved the problem of getting payloads there and must now find a killer app to convince commercial customers that the space station is someplace they need to be.

“I really don’t feel like we need more ideas on getting people to orbit and providing the supply,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters, said Dec. 10 in a presentation at a Low Earth Orbit Commercialization workshop held here. “Space station is up there as a platform and we need to look at that as a demand generator. How can we use that as a demand generator so that when space station goes away, you have a self-sustaining, nongovernment market?”

Completed in 2011 at cost of roughly $100 billion, the international space station is currently the only spaceborne research platform to which U.S. scientists have access. The White House wants to keep flying the station until 2024, although Congress has officially pledged funds only through 2020, and European partners in December agreed to continue only through 2017.


“NASA explicitly acknowledges that we don’t want to be doing this forever.”

Phil McAlister


At about $300 million a year, NASA’s budget for its own ISS-based research is roughly a tenth of what the agency spends annually to keep the outpost aloft and habitable. A Florida-based nonprofit known as the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is responsible for coordinating non-NASA research on station, and is legally entitled to exactly the same amount of station’s laboratory resources as NASA.

CASIS, however, has only a fraction of the money NASA pours into its internal research. The nonprofit is permitted to use only $3 million of its $15 million annual NASA stipend as seed money for non-NASA researchers, which at the moment are split 50-50 between academia and industry.

Investigators sending experiments to space through CASIS, whether university-based or corporate, “pay the majority of their own costs,” Cynthia Bouthot, director of business development for CASIS, said in an interview here Dec. 10 after the first day of the two-day workshop.

However, CASIS’s government stipend effectively provides a steep discount on the space-logistics side of the cost equation. Without CASIS as a mediator, prospective researchers would not only have to design and build an experiment, but also foot the bill for integration of their experiment with a rocket, launch to space station and, most expensive of all, the crew time needed for tending the payload on orbit.

ISS crew member attends to plant experiment. Credit: CASIS
ISS crew member attends to plant experiment. Credit: CASIS

For a single experiment, “the average value of that is about $7.5 million,” Bouthot told SpaceNews.

Bouthot is a relatively new addition to CASIS. She joined the nonprofit in 2013, and by January had built up a business development staff of six, including three full-time CASIS employees. Now four years old, CASIS has developed a double-barreled strategy that prioritizes Earth observation and life sciences research aboard ISS.

CASIS is the closest thing there is to an advertising department for the international space station’s scientific capabilities. NASA is legally barred from advertising — and is not currently lobbying for the act of Congress it would take to change that, McAlister said here — so much of the publicity the facility gets among prospective researchers outside the aerospace industry comes in the form of cold calls and networking by Bouthot and her staff.

It paid off earlier this year, when CASIS persuaded Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. to send four payloads — two drug delivery experiments and two drug development experiments — to the space station. CASIS staff showed up to a company innovation day in April and now, in December, Eli Lilly’s experiments are being “racked and stacked” in preparation for launch, Bouthot said.

CASIS has rebounded from a rocky start in 2011, which included the abrupt resignation of former executive director Jeanne Becker. Becker quit in 2012 after only six months on the job, leaving the board a resignation letter that warned CASIS’s business practices were imperiling its nonprofit status. By law, the organization that manages non-NASA science aboard ISS must be a nonprofit.

The scandal, and the congressional attention it attracted, have blown over for now, and CASIS has since sent and returned its first two experiments to space. The group has more experiments in the pipe but, as always, funding is an issue.

One of CASIS’s charges is to find private investors — angels, philanthropists or even the profit-seeking sort — to finance experiments. The effort is not going so well, CASIS President Greg Johnson said in a podium presentation.

“I’m not going to complain about the $15 million,” Johnson, a former astronaut who also answers to his old call sign “Box,” said in a podium presentation. However, “we have 24 projects, millions of dollars of projects, that are sitting around in our marketplace, but they’re not funded yet.”

CASIS even plans to ask NASA for “a little extra seed money” to help unclog the pipeline and get some of the 24 experiments to orbit, Johnson said. He did not say how much funding the group would seek.

Meanwhile, no one who attended the mid-December workshop, NASA least of all, ventured guesses about how or when low Earth orbit research might become predominantly commercial.

“When exactly NASA goes from a predominant user of 51 percent to 49 percent, I don’t really know, and I don’t really care,” McAlister said. “I think the journey that we’re going on, that path, is what’s important. NASA explicitly acknowledges that we don’t want to be doing this forever.”

Actor Seth Green, an avid space buff, designed CASIS’s latest ISS mission patch.