Axiom Space will create its space station by detaching modules it initially installs on the International Space Station. Credit: Axiom Space

WASHINGTON — Executives with two companies developing commercial space stations called on NASA and Congress to take fiscal and policy steps to avoid a space station gap they feared could cede leadership in low Earth orbit to China.

Speaking at a Feb. 14 hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, representatives of Axiom Space and Voyager Space said more funding was needed to ensure a smooth transition from the ISS to commercial stations, along with policy measures to ensure the ISS does not undermine the business case for those stations.

“As we continue to build the next generation of space stations, we ask for your consideration of certain commitments to ensure CLD success,” said Dylan Taylor, chief executive of Voyager Space, referring to NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program supporting development of those stations.

He identified five areas where his company sought support from the government, including a commitment to use commercial stations when available, decommissioning the ISS in 2030, adequate funding for the CLD program, addressing indemnification and liability concerns, and not compete with industry.

He emphasized the need for increased funding, but did not specify how much additional funding. “A funding increase authorized by Congress will bolster investor confidence and accelerate early investment,” he said. “Lack of investment in 2024 and 2025 would jeopardize schedules for all providers and increase the risk of a gap in U.S. human presence in low Earth orbit.”

Mary Lynne Dittmar, chief government and external relations officer at Axiom Space, also sounded a warning about a potential post-ISS gap. “If we have a gap of American presence in low Earth orbit, the only winner will be China,” she argued, by attracting users to its Tiangong space station. “An immediate course correction by Congress is needed.”

She offered nine recommendations in her prepared testimony, many of which overlapped with Taylor’s, including ending the ISS by 2030 and appropriating sufficient funding to the CLD program. She also recommended NASA downselect to two companies in the CLD program to preserve resources, and that funding for a U.S. Deorbit Vehicle that would safely bring down the ISS at the end of its life come on top of funding for ISS operations and the CLS program.

The comments about ensuring the ISS is retired in 2030 come as NASA officials have suggested in recent months they would be open to a further extension of the station as a hedge against delays in commercial space station development. They have also acknowledged that a gap between the ISS and commercial stations may also be possible, playing down the implications of any such gap.

“Uncertainty with regard to the end of life of the station, of course, raises the specter for investors and customers both that they will be on a platform that has to compete with the government,” Dittmar said, but added that NASA is “threading the needle” by also seeking to avoid a gap.

“It’s absolutely critical that we maintain consistency with that date because investors are underwriting based upon a timeline,” Taylor said. “If the timeline changes, the underwriting changes and the investment thesis changes.”

Ken Bowersox, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said at the hearing that NASA was focused on ensuring that at least one commercial station would be ready before the scheduled ISS retirement. He did not directly address any of the recommendations from station developers on topics such as an early downselect of CLD developers.

“Our approach to avoiding any gap in low Earth orbit is to do everything we can to make the commercial LEO destinations before 2030. We’re committed to deorbit ISS starting in 2030 and we’re going to work with you to try to get the resources to do that,” he told the committee.

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...