Artist impression of the Chinese Space Station – an 80-metric-ton modular Mir-class outpost in low Earth orbit. Credit: China Manned Space Agency

WASHINGTON — Companies involved with commercial activities on the International Space Station or planning their own space stations may face a new competitor in China’s new space station.

During a presentation at the ISS Research and Development Conference Aug. 4, Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, said his company has already lost business to China and its space station.

“I lost a customer, my first customer that I lost going to the Chinese space station,” he said. “We’re in a competition now.”

He did not identify the customer or what they had planned to do. Nanoracks has several lines of business on the ISS today, from hosting experiments and external payloads to using the station as a platform for launching small satellites.

Chinese officials have said they are open to cooperating with other countries regarding use of the station. Ji Qiming, assistant director of the China Manned Space Agency, told China Daily in June that it had selected nine scientific projects from 17 countries to fly on the station, and was working with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs to identify others. That could also include flying astronauts from other countries to the station.

Manber said that was a reminder for the need of U.S. leadership to attract international users of the ISS. “There should be no question that these are important ways that we keep not only that soft leadership, American leadership, but how we learn and how capital flows,” he said. “If we don’t, we open the door to other to come in and take leadership.”

Nanoracks is a major commercial user of the ISS but is also looking ahead to the eventual transition to commercial platforms. The company announced Aug. 2 that it hired a former NASA official, Marshall Smith, as its new senior vice president for commercial space stations, leading projects such as efforts to convert launch vehicle upper stages into commercial platforms.

“We’re doubling down on the International Space Station, and yet at the same time we’re beginning to look at a new era of commercial space stations,” he said. “We have to start planning as to what happens as the ISS begins to retire at the end of this decade.”

That “doubling down” on the ISS includes Bishop, a commercial airlock module that Nanoracks developed and installed on the station last December, allowing the company to launch more satellites and install external payloads. He cautioned, though, that NASA might be focusing too much on new hardware as it seeks to support commercialization efforts.

“NASA has not met new hardware that it doesn’t like,” he said. “Everybody’s fascinated with the hardware and they’re not focused on the demand side.” That approach, he said, can reduce use of existing hardware and thus their economic returns for the companies and their investors. “If the investors don’t see good returns, they’re not as interested in promoting other ideas on the demand side.”

Eventually, Manber said he expects the ISS to be replaced by several commercial platforms, optimized for specific applications ranging from tourism to research. Those facilities will be designed from the beginning for commercial use, something that is not the case of the ISS today.

“The ISS was a political station as well as a technical marvel, but the rules and regulations that have to be in place do limit the market of what you can do,” he said. “I believe there will be market niches that allows you to specialize and encourage in-space transportation and development.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...