While NASA is planning its road to Mars, a number of commercial interests and place policy experts are discussing what happens after the International Space Station ends its operational life, according to a Tuesday story in Space Policy Online. Currently, the international partners have committed to operating ISS through 2024. Some have suggested that the space station, conceived by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, could last as long as 2028. But, after that, there will still be a need for a space station of some sort, either in low Earth orbit, or at one of the Lagrange points where the gravity of the moon and Earth cancel one another out.
“Charles Miller, President of NexGen Space LLC, and Mike Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace, insisted NASA needs to do more to make commercial LEO activities a reality. Miller is a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space. Bigelow is building inflatable space modules, one of which will be attached to the ISS late this year or early next as a test. (It is scheduled to be taken to the ISS on the next SpaceX cargo mission, SpX-8. A date for that launch has not been announced as SpaceX recovers from the failure of SpX-7 in June.)
“Miller stressed that a “seamless, low-risk transition” from ISS to commercial space stations is critical, noting that current plans to operate ISS extend only to 2024, which is not that far away. He listed four markets (not including NASA) for LEO services — microgravity research, propellant transfer, transportation node, and on-orbit assembly. Of those, he counted microgravity research as the most speculative. The other three have much clearer markets, he contended: the planned United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket with its ACES upper stage is the harbinger of a new paradigm in launch that will eventually lead to commercial propellant depots in LEO; the use of the ISS for deploying nanosatelites is a precursor of the transportation node concept; and the advantages of assembling modular geostationary (GEO) satellites in LEO and then moving them to GEO, instead of subjecting the assembled satellite to the stresses of launch, will stimulate an on-orbit assembly business.”
The sticking point seems to be money, or rather the lack of it, or more importantly the lack of NASA money. Various commercial enterprises interested in building and using a commercial space station would like to have the space agency become an anchor customer on the facility, would presumably include a commitment of funding. A similar arrangement is the core of the commercial crew program, which features NASA paying for the development of commercial spacecraft and then leasing them to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
NASA is certainly interested in being a customer on a commercial space station. The space agency is looking at the Bigelow B330 inflatable module, not just as the core of a space station, but as a habitat module for spacecraft voyaging to the moon and Mars. The module has an immense interior volume of 330 cubic meters, three times the amount of the Destiny module on the ISS. A Bigelow inflatable module is due to be attached to the International Space Station to test the technology further.
However, considering that the space agency will be hard-pressed to maintain its deep space exploration program on the budget the Obama administration has promised, it may have little left over to subsidize a commercial space station. The space agency would love a commercial company to build one on its own dime and then offer space to NASA. And thus there is the problem, not to be solved without some show of presidential leadership which, for the time being, is lacking.