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ISS and the Emerging Space Economy

When President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to build a “permanently manned space station,” he stated in his 1984 State of the Union Address that this initiative would “build on America’s pioneer spirit” and lead to peaceful, economic, and scientific gain. Reagan also contended, “A space station will permit quantum leaps in our research in science, communications, and in metals and lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space.”

Reagan’s emphasis on commercial and economic opportunities reflected the maturation of the space program beyond the episodic human exploration missions of the 1960s and 1970s into an era of routine operations beginning in the 1980s, where the Space Shuttle was already demonstrating its utility for launching communications satellites into geosynchronous orbit and for enabling microgravity research in canisters labeled “Get Away Specials.” That same year, the Commercial Space Launch Act directed NASA to pursue commercial launch opportunities for its missions, which was another key step in opening up low-Earth orbit to commercial activities.

Indeed, in NASA’s initial space station justification, of the eight functions the facility would serve, two were clearly oriented toward its commercial potential:

  • A laboratory in space for the conduct of science and the development of new technologies.
  • A manufacturing facility where human intelligence and the servicing capability of the station combine to enhance commercial opportunities in space.
Microgravity Science Glovebox ISS web

NASA astronaut Scott Tingle performs research operations with the Microgravity Science Glovebox inside the U.S. Destiny Laboratory module. Tingle was working on the Metabolic Tracking experiment that looks at a particular type of medicine and how it interacts with human tissue cultures. Results could improve therapies in space and lead to better, cheaper drugs on Earth. NASA photo

This rationale has been a constant throughout the development, construction and assembly, and operations of the International Space Station (ISS), and the designation by Congress in 2005 of the U.S. segment of the ISS as a “National Laboratory.” Today, it remains one of the most prominent reasons for keeping the ISS or something like it operating beyond 2024. And while the promise of new metals and miracle drugs has not yet been fully realized from microgravity research, the scope of commercial activity on the ISS has broadened well beyond what was anticipated when the space station was first proposed to include a wide range of commercial research investments in facilities, life sciences, physical sciences, remote sensing, technology development, and education. Areas of particular promise include stem cell research, “Cool Flames” – or flames that continue burning with no visible flame – which may enable rockets to burn fuel with more efficiency, and additive manufacturing.

This result was not predicted by computational models (based on high temperature chemistry) nor expected based on prior experimental work. This unique burning behavior highlights the need to better understand both low and intermediate temperature fuel chemistry and its effect on droplet combustion, having implications for spray combustion and fire safety. This unexpected observation has attracted international interest from researchers in academia, industry, and government laboratories.

A Made in Space Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF) allows for immediate repair of essential components, upgrades of existing hardware, installation of new hardware that is manufactured, and the manufacturing capability to support commercial interests on the ISS. Additive manufacturing is the process of building a part layer-by-layer, with an efficient use of the material. The process, also known as 3D printing, leads to a reduction in cost, mass, labor and production time. The ISS crew would be able to utilize the AMF to perform station maintenance, build tools, and repair sections of the station in case of an emergency.


The NASA Commitment

NASA Deputy Program Manager for ISS Joel Montalbano is a lead driver of NASA’s commitment to ensure the commercial promise of the facility is realized. He describes its evolution as follows: “When we first started building the space station, the first few years were based on building the hardware, putting it together and connecting all the pieces, and trying to sort out all the operational agreements with the international partners. Once assembly was complete, we turned the page and began focusing on utilization and commercialization research.” Montalbano added that NASA has helped spur commercial markets through its commitment to support commercial cargo [Commercial Orbital Transportation Services – COTS] and crew deliveries to the ISS. With respect to cargo, he said, “Because of what we’ve done in the commercial cargo delivery world, we’ve generated two new rockets to go to low-Earth orbit: the Falcon 9 from SpaceX and the Antares rocket, now from Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (the new name for Commercial Cargo provider Orbital ATK, which was acquired by Northrop Grumman in 2018). The space station generated two venues for companies to operate in low-Earth orbit. Those options didn’t exist before. You had to go with a government entity. That’s a huge benefit of what we’ve done with commercialization with the cargo, where we bought a service to deliver cargo.” Of course, NASA is also creating a new market for commercial crew flights to and from the ISS, with the Boeing CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX Crew Dragon scheduled to begin flying next year, and with nine astronauts assigned to these missions.

“When we first started building the space station, the first few years were based on building the hardware, putting it together and connecting all the pieces, and trying to sort out all the operational agreements with the international partners. Once assembly was complete, we turned the page and began focusing on utilization and commercialization research.”

Considerable effort was made to refine existing NASA requirements documents. Volumes of documents were improved and condensed into a focused set of hundreds rather than thousands of requirements, Ven Feng, manager of NASA’s International Space Station Transportation Integration Office, explained.

3d printer ISS web

A “Made in Space” 3D printer prints test samples while the printer is in the Microgravity Science Glovebox. NASA photo

“We put all of those into one book called the SSP 50808 [International Space Station to Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Interface Requirements Document]. That book is the same set of requirements that we use across the fleet of vehicles that come to the ISS. So it’s not only for Dragon and Cygnus, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is using it for their follow-on HTV-X [unmanned cargo spacecraft for ISS resupply]. Sierra Nevada’s Dream Chaser is also using the same book, as are Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.”

Getting commercial oriented experiments up and down from the ISS is one thing; ensuring they are carefully tended once on orbit is another. “The way we are operating with the U.S. National Lab is 50 percent of NASA’s resources are dedicated to the National Lab and CASIS [the non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, which NASA designated in 2011 to manage the unique laboratory environment], where CASIS has developed the commercialization market,” noted Montalbano. “What that means is 50 percent of NASA’s resources goes to up National Lab mass, 50 percent of NASA’s crew time goes to National Lab and 50 percent of NASA’s down mass goes to National Lab. You can throw in power and data and everything you need to operate on the space station. We’ve allocated per Congress’ instruction 50 percent of NASA’s resources to build up the commercial market. We’re not finished and not even close to being finished, but we are taking steps to go in the direction of enabling markets that were unheard of before we had the space station.”


A Robust User Segment

For seven years, NASA, CASIS, and the American Astronautical Society have held an annual conference devoted to ISS research and development opportunities. At this year’s conference in San Francisco, said Brian Talbot, CASIS’ vice president of marketing, “we had nearly 1,000 attendees and most were nontraditional. Sometimes, when you go to typical space conferences you are just talking to yourself. At the ISS R&D Conference, we were talking to commercial, government, and academic researchers across a wide range of disciplines who have never done space-based research. For NASA and CASIS, that’s a huge indicator of both success and the potential for exciting space R&D to come in the next few years through the unique ISS opportunity.”

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Edward Goldstein has more than 20 years' experience in the U.S. space community. From...