Nearly 20 years ago, two commercial satellites conducted a U.S. government mission that transformed the trajectory of the U.S. space economy. While the 2007 Orbital Express mission may not have the same household name recognition as other space programs, it proved what the entire national space community can achieve through collaboration to develop autonomous in-space servicing.
DARPA and NASA collaborated on that mission to demonstrate safe, cost-effective robotic and autonomous satellite servicing in orbit. For the first time, two vehicles launched in a paired configuration successfully completed multiple in-space servicing demonstration scenarios, including fuel and hardware transfers and multiple rendezvous from both short range and from a distance of more than 400 kilometers.
In-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities will eventually be crucial enablers of securing and sustaining the future space economy. However, they have not fully matured or become mainstream in the two decades since Orbital Express. Of the several dozen global companies developing ISAM, most are still in development stages. However, a handful are actively deploying services today, and some satellites operating in geostationary orbit feature life-extension modules.
While ISAM capabilities are nascent, they are in growing demand. Satellites are being designed with servicing in mind for longer and evolvable lifecycles. Commercial companies are conducting groundbreaking research in zero gravity. Human and robotic missions are being planned for cislunar space and farther-flung domains, with autonomous refueling and servicing identified as key mission capabilities. To protect and defend all these interests within an increasingly competitive space domain, the U.S. Space Command and other national security entities are emphasizing dynamic space operations, which will rely on in-space servicing.
Each of these communities is pursuing its respective priorities for ISAM, but these efforts are not optimally coordinated across sectors. Without coordination, myriad solutions and standards may emerge for routine operations like docking or refueling, which, in turn, could limit the growth potential, interoperability, and global preeminence of the U.S. ISAM marketplace.
U.S. space is at a technological tipping point in this area, and this pursuit is bigger than any single government agency or industry sector can successfully complete on its own. Because establishing global leadership in ISAM is a national strategic priority, we must converge on it with a whole-of-nation effort. It’s for this reason that the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate launched the Consortium for Space Mobility and ISAM Capabilities (COSMIC) in April at the Space Symposium.
COSMIC responds to the White House’s National ISAM Implementation Plan issued in December 2022, which called for NASA to “convene a national consortium to improve communication between government, industry, and academia” to foster a thriving U.S. ISAM capabilities base. These three groups comprise a joint steering committee for COSMIC, and each has a dedicated caucus within the consortium, ensuring that our collective work represents each sector’s needs, goals, and concerns—all aligned under the unifying national strategy.
We need every stakeholder working on this technology to join this national effort to get there. In early November, COSMIC will convene all of the nation’s leading ISAM experts for the first time for its formal kickoff meeting in College Park, Maryland, with senior keynote speakers from the White House, NASA, and Space Force. U.S. ISAM stakeholders should join us to help bring a crucial enabler of the future space economy into reality.
COSMIC aims to make ISAM a routine, efficient, and cost-effective part of space operations by coordinating and accelerating the universal adoption of ISAM technologies. COSMIC participants collectively tackle hard technical challenges along five focus areas: research and technology, demonstration infrastructure, missions and ecosystems, policy and regulation, and workforce development. This builds on the excellent work done by other entities such as CONFERS—a DARPA-initiated consortium now operated by the private sector, which has focused on technical research and standards and policy development—to actively foster collaboration between the sectors developing ISAM.
The opportunities COSMIC affords us to partner in this way are exemplary of how we are living through the most exciting time in space. In the 20 years since the Orbital Express mission, we have explored the tremendous potential this capability offers for our spacefaring future. We have made significant progress in that time, and if we align our efforts in support of our national strategies, we will be at the cusp of making ISAM a routine part of space activities.
Greg Richardson is the executive director of COSMIC and a senior project leader at The Aerospace Corporation, a national nonprofit that operates a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) for the U.S. space enterprise.