An illustration of the Ixion module, an upper stage left in orbit and refitted as a space station module, being attached to the ISS. Credit: NanoRacks

PASADENA, Calif. — Companies interested in developing commercial space stations and related facilities in low Earth orbit are wondering if NASA’s support for such efforts has been overshadowed by the agency’s rush back to the moon.

NASA requested $150 million in fiscal year 2019 for new Commercial LEO Development program. The final omnibus spending bill for 2019, enacted in February, provided $40 million for that effort, with report language directing that money be used “for LEO port implementation analysis and other activities to enable future commercial activities at the International Space Station.”

NASA has yet to announce its plans to use that funding, panelists at a session of the Space Tech Expo here noted May 21. Some suggested the funding go towards stimulating commercial demand for use of the ISS or other facilities in LEO.

“You’ve got to find that golden nugget of demand,” said Thomas Martin, director of launch and human exploration strategy and business development at Aerojet Rocketdyne. That would include products and services that can command a price high enough to make it profitable despite the costs of getting to and from orbit. “How do we take that money and seed that market demand?”

Others, though, argued that a more urgent near-term issue is supply. “There’s one port left on the station and everyone wants it,” said Mike Lewis, chief innovation officer of NanoRacks. NASA has previously discussed issuing a solicitation for companies to submit proposals to use that port, but has not moved ahead with those plans.

Lewis argued the funding could help alleviate that shortage through construction of a docking node. “Forty million dollars would just about build you a ‘T’ that could give you three more locations or more,” he said. “That would enable a lot more users.”

The lack of visible progress on NASA’s LEO commercialization efforts, though, has led some to wonder if it is still a priority for an agency now tasked with returning humans to the surface of the moon by 2024. “Has LEO commercialization been eclipsed by the lunar landing?” asked Mike French, senior vice president of commercial space at Bryce Space and Technology.

Industry believes it still is a priority, even if there’s not as much attention to it as was the case a year ago, when NASA was proposing ending federal funding of the ISS by 2025. “I don’t think anybody wants to abandon low Earth orbit right now,” said Martin. “From our perspective, I think the station has a role for the next decade, at least.”

“I think it’s really excellent to have direction” like returning to the moon by 2024, said Lewis. He added his company has seen some restructuring of contracts in the wake of the announcement to provide more of a focus on going to the moon, leading the company to think about how to make sure commercialization isn’t left out in that planning.

He and others have no shortage of potential applications for commercial platforms, either attached to the station or free-flying. Al Tadros, vice president of space infrastructure and civil space at Maxar Technologies, said his company studied for NASA a “space station without the habitats”: a platform where robotic systems would unload cargo from visiting spacecraft and use it to assemble spacecraft and other structures without the constraints imposed on spacecraft built on Earth.

“We looked at it not from a question of can it be done,” he said. “It’s what are the economics of doing that.”

Commercial facilities could also host research labs, including those for the government. “I think that there will always be a need for a government-subsidized research facility in space,” said Christine Kretz, vice president for programs and partnerships at the ISS National Laboratory, the organization that operates the portion of the ISS designated a national lab. “If the International Space Station becomes obsolete, and it’s time to move on to some other vehicle, I think there are plenty of companies who are looking at how they can make a better one.”

Lewis was more skeptical about one potential market, at least for the ISS: tourism. “We’ve actually looked into this as a business case, and yes, we could just do that,” he said of adding a module for tourism on the station. “But is that satisfying? Is that what we want the legacy of the space station to be? Not necessarily.”

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...