WASHINGTON — NASA unveiled a multi-pronged effort June 7 to increase commercial use of the International Space Station, from changes in policy to making a docking port available for commercial modules.
The plan, announced at an event at the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York, is the latest push by NASA to encourage both increased commercial use of the ISS while building up a supply of commercial facilities that could eventually succeed the station.
“We need to think of a different way of doing business,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “We have no idea what kinds of creativity and literally out-of-this-world ideas can come from private industry.”
The initiative announced by NASA features five elements. One is a new commercial use policy for the station that will allow activities ranging from manufacturing to marketing to take place on the station. That includes a pricing schedule for cargo to and from the station and services there.
Those activities must fall into one of three categories, said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters: a “connection” to NASA’s mission, stimulation of the LEO economy or needs to make use of the unique environment of microgravity.
NASA will also allow commercial crew providers to transport private astronauts to the station. The agency will allow two such missions per year to the station for no longer than 30 days each. Those astronauts will be charged about $35,000 per day by NASA for use of station resources, like life support, as well as the fees charged by the companies arranging the flights.
NASA plans to release a long-awaited solicitation to give companies access to a docking port on the Harmony module of the station to which they could attach a commercial module. That request for proposals, part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program, will be released June 14, and Gatens said NASA expects to select a company by the end of the year. A separate NextSTEP solicitation, to be released on July, will focus on studies of free-flying commercial space stations.
NASA had discussed offering that port to companies as far back as 2016, but held off on a formal solicitation until now. Gerstenmaier said the upcoming competition is informed by studies that NASA awarded last year to a dozen companies examining LEO commercialization concepts, and why it was now rolled into this broader initiative.
“We thought it was important that, rather than doing this piecemeal, one at a time, it was good to put it all together,” he said. “It took us a little bit of time to get that all together.”
The final two elements of the initiative focus on demand. NASA will seek proposals for studies on commercial uses of the station as well as identification of “real and perceived” barriers to using the station. It also released a forecast of its minimum long-term demand for services and activities in LEO.
NASA is encouraging greater commercial use of the station as part of a long-term vision that sees a gradual transition from the ISS to commercial space stations, of which NASA would be one of many customers. That would, in turn, free up NASA resources for its exploration plans, such as returning humans to the moon.
NASA, though, has backed away from proposals last year to end direct federal funding of the ISS by 2025. The end of station is less certain now, although there have been efforts in Congress to extend NASA’s authorization to operate the station through 2030.
The main principle in NASA’s eventual transition from the ISS, Gatens said, “is that there will be no gap in human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.” With this new initiative, “we’re hoping that new capabilities can develop that can one day take over for the space station, and we will begin to do that transition when those capabilities become available.”
This approach, though, still leaves open questions about commercial utilization of the ISS. One issue is whether companies that perform research on the station can retain all their intellectual property (IP). “We think there’s enough protection there” in the new policy, Gerstenmaier said.
However, Mike Gold, chairman of the regulatory and policy committee of the NASA Advisory Council, said that the policy alone likely can’t address all industry concerns about IP rights, as NASA can’t waive the IP rights for other federal government agencies. His committee has raised that issue in their previous work, including at the council’s most recent meeting May 31.
“It has substantial chilling effects,” he said, particularly for those in the pharmaceutical industry. He said he hopes that an upcoming NASA reauthorization act will include language resolving those concerns.
Gerstenmaier said that NASA will be open to change policies or pricing in response to industry input. “This is the beginning of us actively starting an open dialogue with industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities.”