Companies express varying interest in NASA’s ISS commercialization plan

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s announcement of a new low Earth orbit commercialization strategy has prompted varying degrees of interest from companies, but even the most ardent supporters caution that the “devil is in the details.”

The boldest sign of support for that strategy, announced by NASA June 7, came from Bigelow Aerospace. In a tweet shortly after the announcement, the Las Vegas-based company said it had made “significant deposits” on four dedicated missions to the station, able to carry up to 16 private astronauts in total.

The company elaborated on that announcement June 11 in a statement by company founder and president Robert Bigelow. He said Bigelow Space Operations (BSO) paid “substantial sums as deposits and reservation fees” to SpaceX in September 2018 for four Crew Dragon missions to the station.

The company plans to charge $52 million per seat for a total ticket revenue per flight of $208 million. The company didn’t disclose the size of the deposits it paid to SpaceX. That per-ticket price is slightly less than the $58 million average seat price NASA says it is paying on its commercial crew contracts with Boeing and SpaceX.

“BSO is excited about NASA’s announcements last Friday,” Bigelow said in the statement. “BSO has demonstrated its sincerity and commitment to moving forward on NASA’s commercialization plans for the ISS through the execution of last September’s launch contracts.”

The Bigelow flights would take advantage of one element of the ISS commercialization plan, which allows two private missions per year to the ISS using commercial crew vehicles starting in 2020. NASA didn’t set an upper limit on the number of private astronauts that can be carried on those flights, lasting up to one month each.

“We’re enabling up to two commercial flights with private astronauts per year, so depending on how many seats they want to carry, that would be a dozen or so private astronauts, potentially, per year,” said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters, during the June 7 announcement.

A company that already has experience flying private astronauts to the ISS, Space Adventures, is also encouraged by the NASA commercialization plan. “We’re pleased to see NASA’s announcement today, and applaud NASA’s efforts in consulting industry to inform their strategy and policy,” Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, said in a June 7 statement.

Shelley’s company has flown space tourists to the station on Soyuz missions, starting with Dennis Tito in 2001 and most recently a decade ago with Guy Laliberté. The company noted in its statement that it still is able to fly people to the station on Soyuz spacecraft, although none have flown since Laliberté, and also has an agreement with Boeing to fly people on CST-100 Starliner missions.

Another element of the strategy is a competition to award a docking port on the station’s Harmony module to a company that wants to attach a commercial module to the ISS. That access has long been desired by companies like Bigelow and NanoRacks, which has proposed its own commercial space station modules.

“NanoRacks believes it is well-positioned to facilitate the further growth of the emerging low Earth orbit marketplace,” Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, said in a statement, citing the company’s experience flying various payloads, from experiments to small satellites, to the ISS.

He didn’t commit the company, though, to pursue the docking port or other opportunities. “For now, we are analyzing the right pathways for us to compete for these new opportunities, both in terms of hardware and services,” he said.

Sierra Nevada Corporation is also taking a wait-and-see approach regarding commercial use of the ISS. In a call with reporters June 7, Steve Lindsey, vice president for space exploration systems at the company, discussed ongoing development of the Dream Chaser vehicle that will fly its first cargo mission to the ISS in 2021, as well as proposals for modules for NASA’s lunar Gateway.

However, he said the company was waiting on the solicitation for the docking port to decide whether to submit a proposal. “We’re certainly going to read it and evaluate it and see if it makes sense for us,” he said. “We’re obviously as a company interested in all of these things.”

Manber also cautioned that the success of the commercialization initiative will depend on how it’s implemented. “The devil is in the details and the stakes are high. We face competition from not only non-market space programs, but from global space agencies embarking on the same commercial pathway,” he said. “If we get this wrong, America’s robustness in space may be in jeopardy.”

Bigelow used the same phrase in his statement about the company’s interest in flying private astronauts to the ISS. “As they say, ‘the devil is in the details,’ and there are many. But we are excited and optimistic that all of this can come together successfully, and BSO has skin in the game.”