WASHINGTON — A NASA safety panel expressed concerns about NASA’s plans to shift from the International Space Station to commercial successors, including funding for an ISS deorbit vehicle.

At its Oct. 26 public meeting, NASA’s the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel issued a recommendation calling on NASA to provide a “comprehensive understanding” of the requirements needed to transition from the ISS to commercial space stations, called commercial low Earth orbit (LEO) destinations, or CLDs, by the agency.

“NASA should develop a comprehensive understanding of the resources and timelines of the ISS-to-commercial-LEO transition plan to a much higher level of fidelity, to provide confidence that the nation will be able to sustain a continuous human presence in LEO,” David West, a member of the panel, said.

That plan, he added, should include “explicit defensible assumptions” as well as specific metrics and deadlines for judging the progress by companies in developing a commercial business case for their stations “and is sufficient to support the development, production and operation of one or more commercial platforms to replace the ISS.”

The recommendation, he said, is rooted in concerns by the panel in the schedule for developing commercial space stations. NASA expects one or more such stations to be in service by the late 2020s to enable a smooth handover from the ISS, currently set to be retired in 2030.

“NASA’s current plan for transitioning from ISS to one or more commercial destinations features a high-level framework and a timeline that is very tight,” West said. The panel is concerned there is not a “clear, robust business case” for commercial stations, he said, “creating programmatic and safety risks with the entire plan for NASA LEO.”

NASA is currently funding design work by two teams on commercial space stations, one led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space and the other by Voyager Space. A third company, Northrop Grumman, announced Oct. 4 it was terminating its NASA agreement and would join forces with Voyager Space on its project. NASA is separately supporting work by Axiom Space to develop commercial modules that will be installed on the ISS and later separate to form a commercial station.

That work has included a request for information issued by NASA Oct. 2, seeking feedback from companies about its requirements for human-rating commercial stations for use by NASA crews. That request for information is open to other companies proposing commercial space stations but not yet supported by NASA.

“For us to be successful, it’s important for us to work together,” Angela Hart, NASA CLD program manager, said during a panel discussion about those requirements at AIAA’s ASCEND conference Oct. 24.

The requirements NASA is seeking feedback on are a “first draft” focused on safety, with later drafts including utilization and operations requirements. “We’re looking to industry to step up, to work together, come back to NASA with how we think this can work,” she said.

Industry officials on the panel said they had no major concerns about those draft requirements. “The NASA safety requirements are clearly there for a reason, they’re well earned,” said Randy Lillard, Blue Origin program manager for the Orbital Reef commercial space station. The issue, he said, will be how companies can demonstrate to NASA they can meet those requirements. “There’s more than one way to show or prove that you’ve met a requirement.”

While the panel’s focus was on NASA requirements, industry panelists did discuss some of the other challenges they face in developing commercial stations that can serve NASA and other customers. Eric Stallmer, executive vice president of government relations and public policy at Voyager Space, mentioned the lack of an equivalent of the ISS’s intergovernmental agreement that creates export control challenges with other ISS partners. “How do we streamline these issues now so it’s not going to be a problem down the line?”

Janet Kavandi, president and chief science officer of Sierra Space, said one issue is working with various nations, particularly in Europe where they traditionally go through the European Space Agency for using the ISS but don’t necessarily have to in order to access a commercial station. “There’s a little bit of fear” about that new way of doing business, she said of those governments.

“NASA recognizes some of those challenges,” Hart said, noting she had a “worry list” of policy issues to address over the next year. “We have a lot of challenges and opportunities to really change the way to do business.”

Budget concerns

One of the biggest challenges is the NASA funding available to support CLD development. Some in industry say privately they are worried about potential budget cuts, or at least slower growth, in the CLD program in the next two years. That is linked to a budget deal in June that caps non-defense discretionary spending at 2023 levels for 2024 with a 1% increase in 2025.

NASA sought a 7% increase in its overall budget for 2024 but has acknowledged that it is unlikely to get that increase, with a flat budget one of the more optimistic potential outcomes. That could result in cuts to programs like CLD, which in turn may end up stretching out the program and decreasing the chances that at least one station will be ready by the end of the decade.

Those budget concerns also affect NASA’s work procuring a vehicle to deorbit the ISS. NASA issued a request for proposals in September for the United States Deorbit Vehicle (USDV), which will handle the controlled reentry of the station into the South Pacific at the end of its life. NASA is requesting $180 million for the USDV in 2024 and projects the project to cost nearly $1 billion over its life.

At the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel meeting, West said it was critical for USDV to remain on schedule. The current timeline for developing the vehicle, requiring it to be ready in 2029, is “challenging enough,” he said, but “a more serious challenge at this point concerns uncertainty over how the USDV will be funded.”

“The panel feels strongly and will continue to emphasize that funding the deorbit vehicle is not optional and it cannot be delayed,” he said. “It must be adequately funded in a timely fashion to provide the means for safely disposing of the ISS.”

Patricia Sanders, chair of the panel, emphasized that point at the end of the public meeting. “The day will inevitably come when the station is at its end of life and we may not be able to dictate that date,” she said. “This needs to be resourced, and resourced now, if we are to avert a catastrophe.”

She also acknowledged the potential budget shortfalls the agency is facing. “NASA has a very full mission plate. To the extent that their budget request is not fully funded, the leadership will need to make critical decisions. Either program content or schedules will need to be adjusted to meet fiscal realities. Not doing so, that is, attempting to do all planned work on expected timelines,  will introduce unacceptable risk.”

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...