ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING NEW MARKETS IN THE SPACE SECTOR IS POISED FOR LIFTOFF. Privately owned space stations, backed by investors and strategic partners, will soon be a reality. Implemented correctly, a dramatic new era of in-space manufacturing, research, entertainment, and tourism will be unleashed.
NASA has declared 2030 as the end date for the International Space Station (ISS). To kick off this new era, Congress has provided initial funding to stimulate the development of these next-generation space stations.
The immediate goal is to ensure continued U.S. leadership in the nascent space marketplace by avoiding a U.S. space station gap. It is expected that by 2030 there will be two stations in orbit from the teams that have received the initial NASA funding. The stakes could not be higher. China’s Tiangong space station is already in orbit and luring international customers.
But the longer goal is more expansive: by unleashing the creativity of the commercial sector, we can fully tap the unique environment of space for advances in Ag-Tech, biopharma, genetics, thin films and other cutting-edge fields of research and manufacturing.
How to begin?
First, we recognize the need for space agencies as the driving customer at the outset — this is a new market, and the government is a proven customer. NASA’s plan is to be one of many customers for the commercial space stations — a formula proven in the decade-long transition from the single-point dependency on the Space Shuttle to today’s commercial launch provider ecosystem, with multiple cargo vehicles and crew services to the ISS. This pivot to NASA as a customer has been a resounding success for the taxpayer, for industry, and, importantly, for government access to this strategically important region. We all know of Elon Musk’s and Jeff Bezos’ launch companies — but there are dozens of smaller companies offering a range of launch services. The good news is that as the cost of space transportation continues to decrease, the flexibility in delivery options has increased. Just as open markets would predict.
Location, Location, Location
For the coming era of private space stations, as in any real-estate project, it is all about location, location, location.
Orbital mechanics is a complex science, but a few basic principles should drive business decisions. The current ISS location, at 51.6 degrees above the equator, is not cost-efficient. It takes more fuel to reach a higher inclination orbit and less cargo capacity as well. There are also fewer optimal launch sites that service the current ISS orbital location. To put it bluntly, the ISS orbit is in the wrong location for commercial space stations. This is not a trivial disadvantage. It is estimated that transportation costs for both crew and cargo represent significantly more than half of the operating costs of any commercial station. That represents hundreds of millions of dollars of costs over the life of any space station.
Knowing these challenges, why was the ISS orbit placed at 51.6 degrees? The answer lies in the geopolitics of the mid-1990s, where the U.S. was grappling with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the desire to integrate the newly formed Russia’s impressive space program into a partnership with NASA.
I saw the motivation firsthand. I was ‘in the room’ for many of those discussions. In the mid-1990s, the Clinton administration embraced replacing Ronald Reagan’s Space Station Freedom with having Russia as a full partner in the ISS. The inclusion of the Russian program served two purposes. First, to stem the brain drain from the collapsed Soviet Union. Second, it provided the United States with backup launch capabilities. We were single-point dependent on the Space Shuttle.
Was this the right political decision for the 1990s? Yes. Is this the right decision for today’s commercial era? No.
So, what is the right location?
Launching due east at 28.5 degrees from Cape Canaveral is the most efficient route. However, this orbit limits Earth observation opportunities, which is a major market driver for the industry. Considering slightly higher orbits increases the marketable Earth observation while still considering transportation costs.
The optimal orbit? Somewhere between 38-45 degrees north of the Equator.
An orbit in this range will allow fuel-efficient cargo missions from Cape Canaveral, Wallops Island in Virginia, as well as from Vandenberg in California. This location also benefits crew and cargo launch from nations like Japan and India and for expected future European capabilities.
Selecting the right orbit is only the first step in realizing maximum commercial sustainability.
Multiple stations are expected in the coming decade. And a cluster of stations in the same orbital inclination would allow for shared resources and on-orbit services. Consider this a space town that lowers both the costs and risks for the in-space landlords and the visiting astronauts.
I’d like to invite all American space station entrepreneurs, whether a free-flying station through NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destinations (CLD) program, such as those from Voyager Space and Airbus, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada, or Northrop Grumman, or a startup venture such as Vast, and planned global station operators to consider coming together in a single chosen orbit. Let’s create a cost-efficient commercial zone, freed from the political heritage of the earlier era of space exploration. Whether for research, entertainment, media, hotels, warehouses, or fuel depots, let’s locate in the same orbit and inclination.
By locating together, station operators could co-buy cargo and crew vehicles, thus reducing the costs. Investors would welcome the risk reduction from both diverse transportation and increased in-space services.
Let’s seize the opportunity to create the first town in space, founded by stations owned and operated by the growing international community. We have the opportunity not to just replicate the International Space Station, but to power a true in-space economy.
Let’s begin the conversation.
Jeffrey Manber is president of international and space stations at Voyager Space and chairman of the board for Nanoracks. Manber was the co-founder and first employee of Nanoracks and previously served as the chief executive officer from 2009 until 2021. He also served as the CEO of MirCorp, which was the first commercial venture to send humans into space with no governmental funding. The views here are his own.