Space Station’s Commercial Users Hitting Bottlenecks

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WASHINGTON — As NASA continues to encourage the commercial use of the International Space Station, some potential customers, and the companies supporting them, are running into problems making full use of it.

At a workshop on ISS utilization here Feb. 17, organized by Houston-based NanoRacks, agency officials emphasized their efforts to increase commercial use of the ISS as part of a long-term transition to future commercial facilities.

Sam Scimemi
Sam Scimemi, NASA ISS director. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“We really need to focus our efforts on the demand side: companies, industries, academic institutions, other government agencies,” said Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters. “We’re trying to ramp up the utilization of it.”

Those who are trying to use the station today, though, often find themselves in a logjam. “We have problems now with upmass for the first time,” said Jeffrey Manber, managing director of NanoRacks, referring to the transportation of cargo to the ISS. “Our commercial demand is pushing the system.”

The current problem is mostly due to the October loss of an Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo vehicle when its Antares launch vehicle failed shortly after liftoff. The company plans to launch the next Cygnus in late 2015 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 before resuming launches in 2016 on a re-engined Antares. Until then, NASA is relying primarily on SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft for transporting cargo to the station.

“NASA has been very good at meeting our requests, but we’re not getting all the upmass that we need,” Manber said. “We hope that smooths out later, but it’s been crunch time for us, and for our customers.”

Even without the cargo transportation issues, NanoRacks executives said they were running into some limitations of the ISS. The company’s most popular service is small-satellite deployment, where cubesat-class spacecraft are brought to the ISS on cargo spacecraft and then released from dispensers transported outside the station through the airlock in the Kibo module.

Demand for satellite deployment is far greater than what even NanoRacks anticipated, though, and is at the limits of what that airlock can support.

“We’re kind of bumping up against some limitations within the space station system itself,” said Mike Johnson, chief technology officer of NanoRacks. “No one expected this airlock to be hyper-utilized.”

Kibo module NanoRacks
JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata in the Kibo module of the ISS. Credit: NASA

One particular issue with the airlock, he said, is limited funding by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency for ground-based support for Kibo operations. “Right now they’re at a particular staffing level, and they’re not able to hire more people to help us with airlock operations,” he said.

Johnson said that NanoRacks is finding ways to more effectively use the airlock. The company is developing a new small-satellite deployment system called Kaber that will fly to the ISS later this year. Kaber will allow the launch of larger spacecraft, as well as more cubesat deployers: 12 per airlock cycle, versus eight per cycle currently.

NanoRacks is also considering building its own airlock module, called Bishop. The airlock, Johnson said, would be like a “bell jar” that fits over a Common Berthing Mechanism port on the ISS. “This would be able to handle on the order of 50 cubesat deployers,” he said. Bishop would be able to handle larger satellites as well and, conceivably, be a backup airlock for spacewalks, “but we’re not ready to go there yet.”

Building Bishop would take two to three years, according to Johnson. He did not disclose a development cost, but said the company would be able to recoup its cost with revenues from satellite deployment and other airlock uses. “This is a great example of creative use of hardware to overcome other limitations we’ve experienced,” he said.

Scimemi said his goal is to get past these bottlenecks and maximize commercial use of the station, stimulating development of commercial stations that can take over when the ISS is retired some time in the 2020s.

“I’ll consider my job successful when people who want to use the space station can’t get on it” and start demanding another station, he said. “That would be my dream. Then I can retire happy.”