Bigelow module on ISS
Bigelow Aerospace received a NASA NextSTEP award in August to study adding one of the company's expandable modules (bottom center) to the International Space Station. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace

DALLAS — NASA will move ahead later this year with plans to offer a docking port and other resources to companies interested in adding a commercial module to the International Space Station, NASA and the White House said Oct. 11.

In a blog post published on the agency’s web site, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy John Holdren said that responses the agency received from a request for information (RFI) earlier this year led NASA to decide to proceed with some kind of competition or other mechanism for adding commercial modules to the station.

“As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station,” they wrote. The post did not offer more details about that opportunity.

In July, NASA issued an RFI, offering use of a docking port on the ISS currently occupied by the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), an experimental module developed by Bigelow Aerospace for NASA to demonstrate expandable module technology. NASA installed BEAM on the station in May and expects it to remain there for at least two years.

“We essentially have one of the ports on the space station that we’re going to make available to the private sector to go utilize how they want,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at a July 13 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee. “We asked them for ideas of how they would use this port.”

The deadline for responding to the RFI was Aug. 12. NASA officials have not discussed in detail the responses they did receive, but have stated they were satisfied with what responding companies said.

“We were quite happy with the response,” said Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, during a Sept. 30 presentation at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. He said NASA received several responses, but did not disclose a specific number, or identify which companies responded. “We were happy with the number and the quality. We’re going through the data right now.”

Several companies have previously expressed an interest in adding a module to the ISS for commercial or NASA use. In April, Bigelow Aerospace said it had made an unsolicited proposal to NASA to add one of its B330 modules under development to the ISS. In August, the company received an award from NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) to study that concept in more detail.

Axiom Space, a company led by former NASA station program manager Mike Suffredini, announced in June plans to develop a commercial module that could be added to the station as a precursor to a standalone commercial space station. Suffredini said in July that his company planned to respond to the NASA RFI.

Another venture that received a NASA NextSTEP award in August was a consortium called Ixion, which includes NanoRacks, Space Systems Loral and United Launch Alliance. Ixion will study converting a Centaur upper stage into a commercial ISS module.

The news about the ISS commercial module opportunity was part of a post that also discussed the NextSTEP program, which NASA hopes will lead to modules that can serve as deep space habitats to support the agency’s long-term human space exploration plans, including human missions to Mars in the 2030s. It also reiterated the administration’s desire for greater cooperation between government and the commercial sector.

“For humanity to successfully and sustainably settle the ‘final frontier,’ we will need to take advantage of investment and innovation in both the public and private sectors,” Bolden and Holdren wrote. “Neither will handle this immense challenge on its own.”

The blog post was published in conjunction with an essay by President Barack Obama on the website of news network CNN. That essay largely reiterated the space policy he announced in an April 2010 speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center where he called for human missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.

“We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time,” Obama wrote. “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way.”

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...