SNC space station
A concept by Sierra Nevada Corp. for a commercial space station using inflatable module technology it is developing and serviced by Dream Chaser spacecraft. Credit: SNC

WASHINGTON — NASA is seeking proposals for a program to support the development of commercial space stations, even as funding for that effort is in jeopardy in Congress.

NASA published a request for proposals July 12 for its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development, or CLD, program. The effort, announced earlier this year, will provide funding for initial studies of commercial space stations that could ultimately be used by NASA and other customers. Proposals are due to the agency Aug. 26.

NASA expects to award between two and four Space Act Agreements to support those studies, with up to $400 million available from fiscal years 2022 through 2025. NASA anticipates a second phase of the program to start in 2026, where the agency would certify commercial space stations for use by both NASA payloads and astronauts.

The CLD program is part of NASA’s broader LEO commercialization strategy, tied to its plans to transition from the International Space Station to one or more commercial stations. That process is likely to take a decade, given interest by both NASA and Congress to continue operations of the ISS through the 2020s.

“I think that’s going to be the third leg in the stool in low Earth orbit” along with commercial cargo and crew, said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, of commercial space stations during a session of the American Astronautical Society’s Glenn Memorial Symposium July 13. “All three pieces of that infrastructure are necessary to be in commercial hands so you can see those synergistic relationships among those three and costs coming down.”

Those future commercial stations, he acknowledged, won’t be as large or as capable as the ISS, at least initially. “In terms of the amount of research volume, I do expect it to go down,” he said, given the size of the ISS. Future commercial stations, he said, likely will start smaller but expand as needed to meet demand. “That’s a very attractive model. You don’t have to pay for a lot of infrastructure unless you’re actually using it.”

NASA, though, continues to face an uphill battle to win congressional support and funding for its LEO commercialization strategy. The agency requested $150 million in fiscal years 2020 and 2021 but received only $15 million and $17 million, respectively.

House appropriators, in a report released July 14 accompanying its version of a commerce, justice and science spending bill for fiscal year 2022, again cut the program. NASA sought $101.1 million for commercial LEO development but the House bill offers less than half that amount, $45 million.

“The Committee is concerned that NASA lacks clear goals and metrics for the transition away from the International Space Station,” appropriators stated in the report. They direct NASA to conduct a study on its ISS transition plans, including future requirements for a continuous human presence in LEO and review of industry capabilities.

“Such report should also discuss expectations for how NASA will sustain global leadership in space science research in the absence of a NASA-owned and operated station,” appropriators stated.

The full House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up that spending bill July 15 and send it to the full House. Senate appropriators have not yet introduced their own version of a fiscal year 2022 spending bill.

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...