NASA adjusting its strategy for LEO commercialization

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WASHINGTON — Less than a year after rolling out a broad strategy for supporting commercial activity in low Earth orbit, NASA is working to revise that strategy while restructuring its management of commercial initiatives.

In June 2019, NASA published its plans for supporting commercial activity on the International Space Station and, ultimately, commercial facilities in LEO. That strategy had five elements, ranging from setting up commercial use and pricing policies for the ISS to supporting development of commercial modules and stimulating demand for those facilities.

NASA is now adjusting that strategy while keeping its five major elements, said Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, during an April 20 webinar hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

“We are revamping that strategy today,” he said. “As we look organizationally at our strategy — as I got a chance to look more and more into this issue — it was clear to me that we needed to do more internally.”

One such internal change is how the agency manages its various commercial activities. “The first step of that strategy, quite frankly, is to create an organization dedicated, and a management structure dedicated, to the commercial sector,” he said. NASA will create an organization within his mission directorate that will combine all its commercial work, such as commercial crew and cargo as well as management of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit that runs the portion of the ISS designated a national lab.

“Within my office, CASIS was managed separately from our commercial crew program, which was managed separately from our commercial cargo program, which was managed separately, in many cases, from our commercial LEO development program,” he said. “We’re putting those all together so we can make sure they are synergistic.”

That change is part of a broader reorganization of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) that Loverro and others have hinted at. That change would also include moving the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division, which handles ISS research, from HEOMD to the Science Mission Directorate.

Loverro said NASA was taking steps to implement the recommendations of an independent review team (IRT) published April 6 of CASIS. One of the recommendations of that report was for NASA to identify a single program executive within the agency would manage the agency’s relationship with CASIS.

Loverro announced in the webinar that Alex MacDonald, chief economist at NASA and someone involved in a variety of commercialization efforts at the agency, will be that program executive. “He’s uniquely suited for this,” Loverro said.

“The ISS National Lab is a really critical part of the broader strategy that Doug has laid out,” MacDonald said in brief remarks during the webinar. One priority, he said, will be a set of “angel investments” NASA announced April 7 in companies developing technologies that can stimulate demand for commercial LEO activities, from optical fibers to personalized medicine. Those awards, part of a NASA Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, have a total value of $23 million through 2023 if all milestones are achieved.

“We’ve had good conversations with CASIS leadership already, and they’re working with us to realize the recommendations of the IRT and implementing the strategy that we’re laying out together,” MacDonald said.

Loverro, in his remarks, emphasized some of the milestones already achieved in the agency’s LEO commercialization strategy. That included an award in January to Axiom Space, giving that company access to an ISS port for attaching a commercial module that will be the core of what ultimately becomes a standalone commercial space station. Axiom separately announced in March that it will buy a commercial Crew Dragon mission from SpaceX to fly private astronauts to the ISS as soon as the second half of 2021.

“That’s a fantastic first step in this commercial space enterprise,” Loverro said of the Axiom Space plans.

He didn’t go into detail during the 45-minute webinar on other aspects of the commercialization strategy and potential changes to it. For example, while Axiom Space’s award of access to an ISS port was through a NextSTEP solicitation, a separate NextSTEP program for supporting a “free flyer” commercial facility has been on hold for several months. One of the companies that expressed interest in bidding on it, Bigelow Aerospace, laid off all its employees March 23, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Another challenge for NASA is funding its LEO commercialization strategy. The agency requested $150 million for that effort in fiscal year 2020, but Congress appropriated only a tenth of that. NASA requested $150 million again for the program in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

“Congress is definitely telling is that we have not done a good job yet of outlining our vision,” Loverro said. “We have not done a good job yet of convincing them of the things that we believe we need to do. That’s on us. That’s our job to do that.”

Loverro declined in the webinar to address other aspects of his directorate outside of LEO commercialization, notably any changes to the Artemis program for returning humans to the moon. “We are going to have a big rollout ceremony for the rest of the Artemis program in just a short, short while,” he promised.