Foust Forward | Hard choices facing commercial space stations

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The International Astronautical Congress (IAC), once a meeting known for technical presentations about government space projects, has become a hotbed of commercial space activity, particularly at this year’s event in Paris. The exhibit hall was filled with companies, large and small, discussing launch vehicles, satellites and other projects, and there was a steady stream of agreements and contracts announced over the five-day event.

One hot topic was commercial space stations. NASA is staking its future in low Earth orbit on the ability of companies to develop stations that, by the end of the decade, can take over the research currently being done on the International Space Station. Those companies, in turn, look to attract other customers for their stations.

At the IAC, Voyager Space, working with Lockheed Martin on a commercial station called Starlab, made several announcements, including a deal with Hilton to study lodging and hospitality suites in space — bringing back memories from the 1960s, when Barron Hilton talked about space hotels. Axiom Space announced a series of agreements with national space agencies, including Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that include flying people from those agencies on private astronaut missions to the ISS and Axiom’s future space station.

Blue Origin and Sierra Space, who announced their Orbital Reef space station at last year’s IAC, provided a modest update about their plans in Paris. Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, said the companies were thinking about how to operate Orbital Reef, envisioning a crew of a half dozen or so professional astronauts who would maintain the station and train visitors, who can then focus on their research or other activities.

But for all the optimism about the development of commercial space stations, or even how many Hilton Honors points will be needed for a night’s stay on one, the conference also showed the lingering concern about the business case for such stations, be it for research, tourism or other space agencies.

“I think we’re going to have to be really hard-headed about business cases, and I don’t think we’re there at all,” cautioned Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer at Axiom Space, during one IAC panel.

NASA is supporting four companies seeking to develop commercial space stations, all of whom think there’s sufficient demand from NASA and others to support their business cases. What’s less certain, she said, is if there’s enough demand to support all of those companies.

“It’s unclear if the market can support four competitors, or two competitors. We don’t know, really,” Dittmar said. That requires being “judicious” about how to winnow down the market, including when to downselect. “There’s going to be some hard choices that need to be made, and they will need to be made sooner than most people are prepared to make them.”

For all the talk of an “in-space economy,” she said the real situation was one of a terrestrial economy that uses space. “Those things that generate a lot of revenue here and seem as though they may have applications to space are going to be the ones that people are going to be looking at.”

“We need to be thinking clearly about the kinds of revenues that need to be generated in order to support one or more space stations, and I don’t think we’re talking about that yet,” she said.

Others at IAC at least acknowledged those challenges of finding enough business to support at least one commercial space station, and doing so by the end of the decade before the ISS is retired.

“I hope we all succeed,” said Andrei Mitran, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, another company working on commercial space station concepts for NASA. “I hope there’s enough of a market for all of us to succeed.”

He described the other companies pursuing commercial stations as “competimates,” a combination of a competitor but also a teammate in an effort to grow the market. “We are looking at how do we make the pie bigger,” he said. “Otherwise, we could kill this market.”


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the October 2022 issue.