NASA, companies reject concerns over commercial space

WASHINGTON — Both NASA and the companies selected by the agency to begin development of commercial space stations say they don’t share concerns raised by watchdogs that such stations may not be ready by the time the International Space Station is retired.

NASA’s effort, called Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, seeks to support the development of one of more commercial space stations that will be ready when NASA anticipates retiring the ISS in 2030. Those stations would ideally be ready by the late 2020s, enabling a gradual transition from the ISS to those facilities.

However, some worry those stations will not be ready before the retirement of ISS. Last November, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) warned NASA’s schedules were “unrealistic” and that a commercial station “is not likely to be ready until well after 2030.” NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), at its most recent meeting July 21, raised the same issue, concluding NASA’s efforts were “on a precarious trajectory” to maintain cost and schedule.

Both NASA and companies working on commercial stations shrugged off those warnings during a panel at the ISS Research and Development Conference July 27. “Our number-one goal is a continuous human presence,” said Angela Hart, CLD program manager at NASA.

The companies with CLD awards are moving quickly, she said. “The frameworks of these agreements are set up to allow them to run quickly, to run a lot faster than our normal typical development, and we are absolutely seeing that.”

She suggested that OIG and ASAP erred by comparing the commercial space station development with more traditional government programs. The companies involved are motivated to be first, she argued. “Because of those motivations and the differences of this framework, you’re going to see a different kind of development that you just can’t compare to a typical government program development, which is what OIG and ASAP are doing.”

The four companies on the panel all said they are on schedules that would have their stations in orbit before 2030. Christian Maender, executive vice president of in-space solutions at Axiom Space, a company with a NASA agreement to attach commercial modules to the ISS as a precursor to a standalone station, said work on the first two modules in on schedule, with the first set to be launched in late 2024.

‘The only concerns that come up is if the space station is going to be ready for us,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment” from OIG and ASAP.

“We are well on our way,” said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, which is partnering with Blue Origin and other companies on the Orbital Reef station. She cited testing of inflatable modules that Sierra Space is developing for the station and other testing. The first Orbital Reef modules are slated to launch in 2027, a schedule she said provides plenty of time to transition from the ISS.

“We are committed to be there two years prior to the decommissioning of the ISS,” said Amela Wilson, chief executive of Nanoracks, which is leading work on the Starlab station concept. “No worries there.”

Only Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, hedged on the ability to be ready before the retirement of the ISS. “It’s obviously very dependent on the market,” he said, including the size of the market and when it will emerge. “That’s really the big question. We can get there before ISS comes down, but it’s all dependent on the market.”

Exactly who will be the customers of commercial space stations beyond NASA and how much demand they will generate remain unclear. Commercial station developers have talked about a mix of private astronauts, national space agencies, commercial researchers and in-space manufacturing as applications of their stations, but acknowledge they’re not sure how those individual markets will emerge.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is mostly focused on how mature can I make those markets when we’re ready to fully independent,” Maender said. “I have high hopes, based on the discussions that we’ve had with clients and customers, that there seems to be a lot of interest.”

“We don’t know, honestly, what will come of all these new space stations,” Kavandi said, noting it’s not uncommon for new, unforeseen applications to emerge. “I am absolutely positive that it’s going to be fantastic.”