Orbital Reef
The proposed Orbital Reef station can be expanded over time by adding more modules, but initially will be about one-third the size depicted here. Credit: Blue Origin

WASHINGTON — NASA’s chief economist Alexander MacDonald said aggressive competition for space agency contracts is “one of the most exciting things that we’re seeing.”

Speaking Nov. 2 on a TechCrunch online panel discussion, MacDonald said competitive forces in the industry are going to help drive down the cost of “core elements of human space exploration.”

Recent announcements that two new industry teams are jumping into the race to develop commercial stations to succeed the International Space Station are “very exciting from a market dynamics perspective,” MacDonald said. 

Last month Nanoracks announced it is working with Lockheed Martin on a commercial space station concept called Starlab. Blue Origin, Boeing, Redwire and Sierra Space are teaming on a commercial space station called Orbital Reef. Axiom Space won a NASA contract to develop a commercial module that will be attached to the ISS.

Before this current surge of commercial space ventures, MacDonald recalled that the only proposal for a private space station dates back to the early 1980s when former NASA engineer Maxime Faget designed an industrial space facility concept that never came to fruition.

Having a diversity of concepts from commercial companies is “incredibly important in human spaceflight,” he said. It should not be a rivalry between private or government-developed ideas, MacDonald added. “It’s about having a multiplicity of cultures … And of course, a multiplicity of cultures also means that there’s going to be different approaches to funding, which I think we’re also going to need.”

“Commercial space is already playing a massive role in the delivery of NASA missions” and more partnerships will be pursued, he said. “NASA has really been relying on commercial services for decades. And what we’re now doing is expanding it to new areas.”

One key reason for that is “we found the commercial capabilities are able to move at speeds, while the government programs maybe not always can,” said MacDonald. 

NASA uses private-sector services for launch, commercial cargo, commercial crew and “the next set of opportunities are going to be around commercial delivery of lunar payloads, commercial lunar landers for humans and obviously Commercial LEO Destinations” for commercial space stations, he said.

Space Force eyeing commercial services

The Defense Department has not yet embraced partnerships with commercial industry the way NASA has, but the U.S. Space Force is looking to move in that direction, said Gen. David Thompson, Space Force vice chief of space operations. 

“What we have to do is understand some of those areas where we’ve trusted ourselves and only ourselves for decades,” he said at the TechCrunch forum. “We really do have to break the mold, think differently and understand and recognize we can incorporate more commercial services.”

The Space Force’s best example of successful procurement of commercial services has been for satellite communications, said Thompson. “That’s been a successful model for us for decades” and the goal is to apply that approach to other types of space-based services, he said.

The next area of interest to the Space Force is commercial services for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), he said. “The first thing we have to do is make sure that these capabilities fit into our architecture and we can we can fit them in seamlessly.”

The Space Force wants to increase purchases of data collected by commercial satellites but the contracting arrangements are challenging, he said. “We have to be able to use the data, we have to be able to come to agreement with commercial companies on how we can use the data in the ways that we need to, but also protect them in terms of intellectual property and data rights.”

“Oftentimes that’s a more significant challenge to be able to work through than anything else,” said Thompson. “The data rights, the data use and the intellectual property that comes with it is a challenge that can be solved. We just have to figure out how to.”

Other commercial services the Space Force is considering buying: data relay and communications to interconnect all the joint forces, space situational awareness data, on-orbit logistics and resupply. “These are the sorts of services we ought to be able to build into our concepts of operations and apply in the future,” Thompson said. “It’s really a question of whether we can get out of our culture and use commercial services effectively. I think there’s a great future for commercial services and military space.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...