Axiom Mission-2 Commander Peggy Whitson, a former NASA astronaut, enters the ISS on May 22. Credit: NASA Johnson via Flickr

NASA’s focus on human exploration beyond LEO reaching to the Moon and beyond is nothing less than thrilling. Last month, the Artemis 2 crew members were announced, and NASA has newly minted the not-too-subtly named Moon to Mars Program Office headed by Amit Kshatriya. The agency is boldly directing its energy toward true human space exploration. Industry and the public should be very excited about these and similar developments.

But as laudable as NASA’s deep space aspirations are, we cannot let these initiatives overshadow and undermine the creation of a robust LEO commercial space station-based economy. To do so, we risk building castles in the sand. Aspiring for moments of glory in reaching other planetary surfaces must not come at the expense of building the foundation on which human migration into space will become possible.

That foundation is exhibited in the “Commercial LEO Destinations” Program,CLD for short. CLD is the singular most important initiative the United States is pursuing for a future of permanent human presence in outer space. With it, we’re building proverbial “ports” to the “cosmic sea.” Any history book reading will tell you a familiar story – living, let alone thriving, in far-off places is not sustainable without the market built around it.

Our recent Beyond Earth Institute webinar on the current and future in-space markets for commercial space station applications featured some prominent experts diligently addressing this issue. As we all know, the International Space Station is an aging facility and will need to be retired in the coming years.

NASA has wisely launched the CLD program to avoid the same “capability gap” we saw with the Space Shuttle, where the U.S. depended on Russia from 2011 to 2020 to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the ISS. If successful, the CLD program will pave the way for LEO commercialization, utilization, diversification, and democratization — a true opening of LEO for everyone.

Budget realities, of course, played a major role in the CLD strategic decision. It’s an understandable argument — if the private sector bears much or most of the long-term financial risk of new LEO space stations, NASA’s budget would free up to do what it does best — explore. NASA is keen to move on.

Yet those same budget realities place the CLD program on a precarious path to success. The CLD companies – Northrop Grumman, Voyager, Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Axiom, their partners, and others – are depending on reliable NASA “seed money” to develop and build their orbital facilities over the coming years. There is a gauntlet of uncertainty that CLD companies will face in the annual budget cycles to come, any of which can derail one or all of the CLD contenders. The program has been proposed funding “in full” this year, yes, though through a concentrated effort from many stakeholders. And even that isn’t really enough. Let’s remind ourselves of the fights about Commercial Cargo and Crew way back when and how those played out.

Nevermind anchor tenancy or the other arguments of use-case and future fiscal reality. That will come, but we’re not there yet. And the stakeholder community must remain sober about the challenges ahead. The technical and deployment issues may be the least of them.

A publicity image showing the interior of Blue Origin and Sierra Space’s Orbital Reef space station concept.

All this does not even include a whole new order of space infrastructure to support the commercial space stations. As Beyond Earth’s executive vice president, Courtney Stadd, put it, “We are in uncharted waters when it comes to commercial space stations. We must be mindful that we are still at a very early stage in developing in-orbit infrastructure – including even something as fundamental as communications, let alone super cheap transportation so essential to commerce. Both government and the private sector must be prepared to make this additional investment.”

CLD must not fail. It has many backers, my organization included, and the fight is on. We must ensure that NASA’s support for CLD is sustained year after year. It’s been encouraging that CLD has survived a political transition among U.S. presidents, a testament to its validity and the advocates who’ve worked on it. Yet, at the same time, we must soon find — and cultivate — the markets that can ensure that future LEO space stations will be bustling hives of scientific research, industrial activity, and tourism.

One economic downturn (we’ve come precariously close) or an unsupportive White House could sink everything.

During our recent webinar, we discussed finding the “killer app” that will start the “gold rush” to LEO space stations. My favorite moment of the program came from Phil McAlister, the director of Commercial Spaceflight at NASA. Phil pointed out that, in the last few years since the first crewed launch of Blue Origin’s New Shepard, there have been over 30 space travelers – and nearly a third were private citizens. He also noted that three of the five crewed flights this year are private. In Phil’s words, “The killer app is people.”

I love this statement because it gets to the heart of what many of us strive for. We all want a future for humanity in space. We see the first steps toward that vision taking place today. Eventually, we’ll know how to keep whole communities of people living, working, and thriving on the space frontier.

The White House’s National LEO Research and Development Strategy Released

Coincidentally, the White House National Science and Technology Council’s recently released its National Low Earth Orbit Research and Development Strategy. It’s worth a read; the strategy paper reinforces this Administration’s commitment to the success of a robust and commercialized low Earth orbit, CLD being a cornerstone. It recognizes that future owner-operated stations will advance science and technology, promote market opportunities, expand international cooperation, and help to build a sustainable space workforce.

It puts forth important policy prerogatives — including, by the way, the first time in an Executive Branch-issued document the phrase “space settlement.” We can debate phraseology later, but the simple endorsement of the idea that humans one day will live elsewhere in the solar system through the concentrated efforts of our national endeavor is enormous. I worked on space settlement legislation decades ago as a congressional staffer, arguing that space migration and permanent off-world presence should be key motivators of why we spend money, time, effort, energy, and attention on space endeavors. There is much more opportunity to elevate an off-world migration goal in the Executive and legislative discourse. For the moment, however, let’s commend the White House for including such language and for emphasizing the critical importance of a robust LEO research and development ecosystem.

But no single statement of Administration strategy, no matter how well crafted, guarantees that the CLD program (let alone any program) will succeed in the longer term, especially as a strategy decided from one Administration to the next. It’s the perennial challenge we in the space community always face.

We all must remain diligent in ensuring that this program succeeds. Congress must take an interest now, beyond an annual appropriation cycle or occasional authorization. We should talk about it, hear about it, welcome testimony, and welcome input. As I wrote at the start and strongly argue, the success of this program is the foundation for the success of all our future human spaceflight endeavors.

It’s critical we get this right. Again, CLD must not fail!

Steven Wolfe is President and Co-Founder of Beyond Earth Institute.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Steve Wolfe is president and co-founder of Beyond Earth Institute, and partner at CWSP International. He served as space policy adviser to former House Science Committee Chairman George E. Brown, Jr. (D-Calif.), who died in 1999.