SEATTLE — Plans for shifting research from the International Space Station to commercial space stations late this decade are still a work in progress, NASA and industry officials say.
In sessions during the International Space Station Research and Development Conference, both NASA and companies said they were committed to a transition from the ISS to commercial stations by the end of the decade but that exactly how that process will work, for both NASA and its international partners, is still under discussion.
“That’s a big part of what we’re doing in the next few years, trying to look at that transition from the ISS to these commercial LEO destinations,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, during a panel at the conference Aug. 3.
He said that Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS at NASA Headquarters, has been meeting regularly with the partners, including earlier that week. Those discussions are examining “what can we do that going to help you, what could we do that’s going to hurt you,” he said.
That will involve some kind of transition period as activities move over from ISS to commercial stations. NASA has previously discussed having roughly a two-year period, which would require at least one commercial station in service by 2028 to enable an ISS retirement in 2030.
“It’s undefined right now,” Montalbano said of that transition. “We’re getting inputs from our partners. We want to figure out what’s going to be helpful, what’s not going to be helpful.”
NASA is also working on the specific requirements it will levy on commercial space station providers. “Our team is working really hard on requirements right now,” said Angela Hart, manager for NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program, at the conference Aug. 3. “In the next year this is our primary focus.”
NASA plans to issue in the next few months a request for information seeking input on draft requirements. “We are looking for anyone and everyone’s comments,” she said. “We think getting that right set of requirements is what’s going to start us down the right path to success.”
That effort will develop top-level safety and service requirements that provide companies with the flexibility to meet them in innovative ways without being overly prescriptive. “We need to be very clear what it is we want, but we need to not necessarily say how to go do that,” Hart said. That extends to how NASA verifies and validates meeting those requirements, she added.
Companies that are working on commercial station designs through the CLD program said during another conference panel that NASA is doing a good job on the effort so far. “It’s wonderfully built with foresight and think it’s exactly what we need,” said Mike Lewis, chief innovation officer at Nanoracks, of the CLD program during an Aug. 2 conference panel.
He said the program needs to ensure it incorporates the needs of all users and does so in a way that is compatible among multiple stations. “We need to make sure we’re building things that are compatible for everyone’s research so that when you’re building something, it can go to any of these places. That’s a critical detail.”
One user of the ISS echoed that concern. “The capabilities that are being used on the ISS are, if I may, being underappreciated during this transition to the commercial platforms,” said Alain Berinstain, chief strategy officer at Space Tango, which provides research services on the ISS. “This capability that exists in small companies, that’s all complementary to each other, needs to also exist for NASA and other users when these commercial stations come online.”
Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman Space Systems, said another issue is how international partners will participate on commercial stations. “We do need NASA and the government’s help on that.”
He also cited regulatory and liability uncertainties for commercial space stations that need to be worked out. “We’ll get there, eventually,” he said, “but my biggest concern is that we have to get there in a reasonable amount of time. We cannot have a gap in low Earth orbit.”