Axiom Space plans to build its privately funded commercial space station by 2024. Credit: Axiom Space

Updated 5 p.m. Eastern with comment from Bigelow Aerospace.

WASHINGTON — As NASA releases a draft solicitation to support development of commercial space stations, a former agency administrator is calling on industry to step up its investment in and use of such facilities.

NASA issued Oct. 3 a draft version of its call for proposals for what it calls Commercial Destination Development in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Free Flyer, part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. Comments on the draft proposal are due Oct. 30, with a final version expected for release around Nov. 18.

The program seeks to support development of commercial facilities in low Earth orbit separate from the ISS, hence the term “free flyer.” The draft solicitation states that the goal of the effort is “to develop and demonstrate commercial destination technologies and markets in LEO,” part of a broader commercialization initiative announced in June that includes a separate NextSTEP solicitation for commercial modules to be added to the ISS.

“NASA seeks to enable multiple privately owned and operated destinations in LEO that are commercially viable in the long term, providing services to the Government as one of many customers,” the draft solicitation states. “NASA seeks to potentially transition away from full reliance on the ISS and cost-effectively meet its long-term needs in LEO by purchasing services from commercially owned and operated destination(s) that offer a broad portfolio of products and services to both the commercial market and NASA.”

NASA states that it expects to issue one or more awards for initial studies of commercial space stations. “Following a portfolio-based decision on the future capabilities potentially available to NASA at both the ISS port and [free flyers], awardees may be issued future Task Orders,” it states.

NASA expects to spend a combined $561 million through fiscal year 2024 on both the commercial ISS module and free flyer initiatives. NASA requested $150 million for its overall LEO commercialization effort in its 2020 budget proposal, although the Senate’s version of an appropriations bill for NASA, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee Sept. 26, includes only $15 million for such work.

NASA hopes its overall LEO commercialization effort, which includes new pricing for commercial use of the ISS, such as for private individuals who wish to visit the station, will help build a broader business case for commercial space stations. That would, in turn, allow NASA to eventually end operations of the ISS and instead be a customer of those commercial facilities.

A former NASA administrator says that those efforts need to accelerate. “This is one thing that bothers me, because we all talk about 25 or 50 years from now. We don’t have that long,” said Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator from 2009 to 2017, during a panel discussion Oct. 7 at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering here.

That urgency, he said, is driven by what he believes to be the limited life left in the ISS. “The ISS is a machine,” he said, “and machines break.” He estimated that there was “probably four to eight years” left in the station’s life, an estimate he didn’t elaborate upon. Previous studies have concluded that the ISS can operate at least through 2028, and likely into the 2030s, without major repairs or replacements of key components.

“Somebody’s got to come up with a business case that helps people understand that there is value in going into low Earth orbit,” he said, such as for pharmaceutical or material science research. NASA and other organizations have been working to try and find that compelling business case for ISS research, but so far without any “killer apps” that would drive demand for commercial stations.

Bolden argued the onus was on industry to step up in both its use of the ISS and development of commercial facilities. He expressed disappointment that Bigelow Aerospace, which has an experimental module on the station, hadn’t done more to implement its vision of commercial space stations.

“The government spent a lot of money allowing the private sector to go use this test facility so that they could step off and go make money,” he said. “You don’t make money if you’re not willing to take a risk.” Companies that settle for using the ISS, he argued, aren’t taking much in the way of business risks since they have much of their costs subsidized by NASA.

“For all of you conservatives here who believe in the free market,” he said to an audience of engineers, “you’ve got an opportunity. Jump off the International Space Station and build the low Earth orbit infrastructure that we have got to have if we’re going to successfully send humans back to the moon and on to Mars.”

“We knew from day one that we were focusing on destinations, and that we were dependent on whether there was space transportation for people, which at this point in time is still something that is highly desired,” Bigelow Aerospace said in an Oct. 8 statement posted on its website in response to Bolden’s comments.

The company noted that its B330 module in development could have a “terrific business case” if attached to the ISS. It warned, though, either a commercial module on the ISS or a standalone space station requires adequate funding. “At such a pivotal point in human spaceflight, this is not the time to handicap a budget for such an important asset with such an important mission,” the company stated.

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...