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Taco Bell Space Station? It’s possible, panelists say

"Futurama," the short-lived animated series that had a knack for nailing absurd predictions, envisioned the Taco Bellevue Hospital where patients could "supersize" their babies or try the "new chemo loco." So why not a space station? Credit: "Futurama" frame grab/ 20th Century Fox Television

COLORADO SPRINGS —  Future private space stations may be sponsored by major corporations, which prompted a spirited discussion during a panel on the future of low Earth orbit at the 34th Space Symposium here.

“I don’t want the Taco Bell International Space Station,” said Erin MacDonald, modeling and simulation engineer for Engility’s Space and Mission Systems Group. “I think it goes against what the public perceives the space station is supposed to be like.”

While the International Space Station is unlikely to be rebranded by Taco Bell or any other corporation, if a new commercial space station is “paid for by Taco Bell, it will be the Taco Bell Space Station,” said Benjamin Reed, deputy director for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division.

The Trump Administration has proposed ending U.S. government funding for the International Space Station after 2024. Congress still needs to weigh in on that timeline and NASA will need to determine its role in future commercial space stations.

NASA’s research suggests a private space station will not be able to operate without government funding, said Alexander MacDonald, senior economic advisor in the NASA Administrator’s office, which is why NASA is requesting funding in 2019 to begin supporting development of commercial space stations.

Plus, it is in NASA’s interest to support the new outposts because the agency will need ongoing access to low Earth orbit when the Space Station retires, Reed said.

“NASA is still going to need to test technologies in orbit before going all the way out to the Moon or Mars,” Reed said. “That new fuel pump we want to develop. Let’s get it up there, prove it works and then send it to the Lunar Outpost and then to Mars.”

Companies planning to build commercial space stations already are grappling with questions about how they will operate, including the role of government customers and corporate sponsorship.

“Would NASA have a program in a Taco Bell Station?” asked Blair Bigelow, Bigelow Space Operations LLC co-founder and vice president of corporate strategy. “On a government-subsidized station, we are held to highest and best use. With a commercial space station, we won’t be successful if we are held to the same kind of rules of engagement.”

Bigelow Aerospace is on schedule to have two private space stations ready to launch in 2021, Bigelow said. Bigelow Space Operations will be responsible for sales, customer service and operation of those space stations, she added.

Erin MacDonald, who was in the audience for the panel discussion, said she raised the question of Taco Bell sponsorship because she was concerned about education and public outreach. Would a private space station require schools to pay? If so, that would prevent a lot of kids from getting access, she said.

Jeffrey Manber, NanoRacks chief executive, said he did not see corporate sponsorship as a problem. NanoRacks plans to refurbish a Centaur upper stage to turn it into a private orbital outpost it calls Independence-1.

“If we are going to do a commercial space station, we have to succeed in the marketplace,” he said. “I’m sure you and everyone you know takes part in things that are sponsored. We welcome that.”

Robert Bigelow, Bigelow Aerospace founder, told SpaceNews after the panel discussion that a commercial space station, like any commercial business, will have to follow the money to succeed.

“You follow the money and make sure what you are doing is safe and legal,” he said. At the same time, he heard the concerns about student engagement and said space stations “need to provide for education and perhaps conduct some philanthropic activities” once they are established.

Ken Shields, director of operations for the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, the organization that manages the U.S. national laboratory on the International Space Station, said the various commercial, educational and government demands could be satisfied by different space stations.

“My vision long term is that we have a U.S. national laboratory that is not tied to NASA or tied to a space station,” Shields said. “There may be multiple assets in space, the Taco Bell Bigelow Space Station, the NanoRacks Federal Express Space Station and Ben & Alex’s Space Station. I believe there needs to be a place where activities can occur that are not purely profit motivated or purely entertainment motivated. I think the national lab construct is a great place to do that. It’s the place where NASA, other government agencies and academia will do their activities.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...