SANTA FE, N.M. — A NASA study examined several options for continuing a national laboratory in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station but stopped short of recommending a specific option.

The study by the agency’s Office of Technology, Policy and Strategy, released by NASA Dec. 20, represents what it calls an “initial assessment” of models for a future national lab in low Earth orbit (LEO) after retirement of the ISS. The study was directed by the National Space Council at its September 2022 meeting and released to coincide with the council’s most recent meeting Dec. 20.

The 154-page report reviewed approaches to replace the International Space Station National Laboratory, the formal name given to the 50% of U.S. resources on the ISS set aside as a national lab. That lab is administrated by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-profit organization, under an agreement with NASA.

The study reviewed six models for a future national lab that would use facilities on commercial space stations — called commercial LEO destinations or CLDs by NASA — or other spacecraft. Those models offered wide ranges in roles the government would play, with NASA leasing dedicated space on a commercial station at one extreme and the agency providing grants to users who would lease facilities on CLDs on their own at the other.

The study assessed the six models using five criteria, from ability to meet NASA needs to equity and accessibility, and using three scenarios of dynamic, steady and limited growth in overall commercial LEO activities. The study did not explicitly consider the cost of the various options.

The model that scored the best, in terms of being favorable across all market scenarios, was one called “Government Research Broker” where NASA serves as a broker for arranging flights of experiments on CLDs or other commercial spacecraft, an approach the study compared to NASA’s Launch Services Program for acquiring launches.

“The Government Research Broker provides a reliable option for NASA to continue activities in LEO in any future scenario, meeting the needs of all but one of the stakeholder-driven performance criteria,” the report stated. The exception was a factor called market sustainability, because the model might compete with CLD providers in some aspects.

However, the report stopped short of recommending that model, or any other, for a future LEO national laboratory, noting that aspects of the models might be combined as NASA continues development of a strategy. “The report concludes that no one model on its own represents a complete strategy for a future national laboratory,” it states.

In additional to evaluating models for a future national lab, the report offers some recommendations on how NASA and CASIS can support a transition from the current ISS National Laboratory. NASA and CASIS could work with private companies to acquire space on modules or spacecraft before the retirement of the ISS as well as buy data directly from commercial providers.

The shift from the ISS National Laboratory to any future model involving commercial space stations will require legislative changes. A 2005 NASA authorization act established a national lab using ISS resources, with a 2010 act formally allocating at least half of U.S. resources on the ISS for the lab, a requirement the report noted is “overly restrictive” particularly in a post-ISS environment.

The report adds that there may not explicitly be a national laboratory in LEO once the ISS is retired, depending on the model selected for supporting research in LEO. “The National Laboratory nomenclature may be completely removed from legislation, or the intent of a National Laboratory may transition to a new model in a post-ISS LEO ecosystem that lacks a government-owned platform,” it states.

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...