WASHINGTON — Even though the International Space Station appears likely to remain in use well into the next decade, some in the space industry are pressing NASA to start developing a strategy for what comes after the ISS, an approach that may rely heavily on commercial facilities.

Currently, the five ISS partners — Canada, Europe, Japan, Russia and the United States — have agreed to operate the ISS only through 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS operations to at least 2024.

On Feb. 24, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, announced that it planned to remain a part of the ISS until 2024, after which time it would establish its own space station, based at least in part on modules from the Russian segment of the ISS. The other three ISS partners have not announced their plans for continued participation in the ISS beyond 2020.

Even if the other partners agree to continue ISS operations to 2024 or later, some say now is the time to develop a strategy for transitioning from the ISS to another facility to avoid any gaps in low Earth orbit operations.

Credit: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democrats
Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. Credit: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democrats

“In aerospace terms, [2024] is right around the corner,” Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here, said at a Senate hearing on human spaceflight Feb. 24. “We need to have very thoughtful discussions and decisions very soon about not just ISS extension but, post-ISS, what that looks like.”

NASA officials acknowledge that now is the time to think about its post-ISS strategy, but say a successor to the ISS is unlikely to be a station built and operated by the space agency.

“At some point this space station will wear out and there needs to be a follow-on space station,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in a speech at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Commercial Space Transportation Conference Feb. 4. “What we’re hoping for is that the private sector picks that up.”


“We, the government, want another viable space station before this one ends,” Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, said during a Feb. 17 workshop on ISS utilization here. That would prevent a gap in low Earth orbit activities that could be detrimental to current ISS suppliers and users. “If the space station ends in the 2020s and there’s nothing to follow it, we will have lost all of this effort in research and benefits to humanity,” he said.

The company perhaps best positioned to develop a commercial space station is Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace, which has been developing expandable habitat modules that could be linked together to form space stations of varying sizes. The company has previously said it expects to complete its first large module, designated BA330, by 2017.

Artist’s concept of Bigelow’s BEAM module attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow/NASA
Artist’s concept of Bigelow’s BEAM module attached to the ISS. Credit: Bigelow/NASA

Bigelow has currently been working on a smaller module, called the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), to test its technology on the ISS. That module will fly to the ISS on a SpaceX Dragon cargo mission in the second half of 2015 and be attached to the station’s Tranquility module.

While BEAM is meant to be primarily a technology demonstrator, others see adding commercial modules to the ISS as a path to fully private stations. The Alliance for Space Development (ASD), a coalition of 11 space organizations, said at a Feb. 25 press conference here that they want NASA to support development of a commercial habitation and propulsion module that could be added to the ISS as soon as 2020, one that could serve as the core of a future commercial station.

“We need to make sure now, about 10 years out, that we have a seamless transition to commercial space stations,” said Charles Miller, ASD executive coordinator.

That approach could also address the challenge NASA and others have encountered lining up commercial users for the ISS. NASA issued a request for information in 2014 to solicit ideas on how to increase commercial opportunities for ISS activities, but agency leaders said the results were underwhelming.

“We were disappointed,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said at a House Appropriations Committee hearing March 4, when asked about the outcome of that effort. “We’re not quite ready yet. We continue to pursue that, however.”

Gerstenmaier acknowledged that NASA has work to do to come up with a strategy for transitioning from the ISS to commercial facilities. “There’s a lack of a low Earth orbit strategic transition plan. We haven’t laid out how we’re going to do this transition,” he said at the FAA conference. “We definitely need to work on that.”

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...