The International Space Station, now almost twenty years old, is arguably the greatest engineering achievement in the history of the world.
There has been at least one American occupying the ISS every single day since November 2, 2000, an extraordinary accomplishment by NASA and its industry and international partners. Not only has rendezvous and docking become routine, but the entire field of space life support systems has advanced at an incredible rate. From oxygen recovery to fire safety to trash compaction, huge advances have been made just in the last five years alone.
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The tricky part is: The International Space Station won’t last forever. While astronauts can repair a broken computer or robotic arm, there are certain components that are more difficult to replace. These elements require the massive cargo bay of the Space Shuttle which no longer flies.
But don’t panic yet! According to the recently-released NASA ISS Transition Report, NASA engineers believe that the ISS is capable of flying for at least another decade, and perhaps even well into the 2030s. Also, the Block II version of NASA’s new SLS rocket will have the lift and volume capabilities necessary to launch ISS-sized elements if the agency should decide to move in that direction. But the clock is ticking.
False battle lines have been drawn between the ISS and a commercial space station alternative. In reality, the problems of creating a habitable and sustainable commercial space station are so vast that they really can’t be achieved without the two working together.
A habitable, free-flying space station requires monumental engineering work, from recreating all of NASA’s life support technologies in a more compressed form (the ISS has 388 cubic meters of habitable space – 5x larger than the Space Shuttle and a staggering 60x larger than the Apollo command module). It also means sending up separate crew and cargo spaceships since moving a spacecraft from one station to another is far more complex than movies like Gravity make it seem.
The costs and engineering of a commercial space station become exponentially easier as a module attached to an ISS port. That commercial cabin could use up delivery space on existing crew and cargo flights, and it could rely on the ISS’s oxygen, nitrogen, electrical power, and water. For that matter, they could even borrow the toilet and the espresso machine (it’s called the ISSpresso and yes, the Italians designed it).
With this in mind, the Trump Administration wisely requested $150 million for this coming year to enable and mature commercial capabilities in low earth orbit (LEO). The Trump Administration was also smart enough not to dictate in any specific detail how this money will be spent. They are welcoming ideas from industry, and it will be the job of new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine to make the final decision in the coming months.
How could a commercial module attached to the ISS generate revenue? There are a lot of good ideas, from space tourism and biomedical research to in-space manufacturing and satellite support. And out-of-the-box ideas for space stations are hardly new – private investors in 1999 created MirCorp and had contracts to (among other things) film an NBC-funded reality show where the winner got to fly to the Mir, until an allergic-to-commercial NASA forced Russia to shut it all down. NASA leadership has a very, very different perspective on commercial space ventures now.
If there are so many commercial LEO ideas, why aren’t any of them flying? Costs and risks are high, and so investors are staying on the sidelines. But what if there was an option for a private model attached to the ISS itself? A module designed to explore commercial applications as the ISS has been designed and built, as a flying laboratory? Fledgling commercial opportunities would benefit by borrowing or purchasing key capabilities from the ISS, significantly reducing the financial overhead to explore and mature commercial business concepts. And once a true commercial seedling sprouts in orbit, the possibilities are endless.
Too many see the International Space Station as an anchor strapped to the neck of NASA’s budget – $3.5 billion per year that is stuck 250 miles from Earth, instead of helping us get to the Moon and Mars. Instead, we should see the ISS as an opportunity to create the first genuine commercial market opportunities in LEO. Without using the ISS to the fullest throughout the 2020s, we may never nurture the commercial space backbone that a NASA-led coalition of commercial and international partners will need to take us back to the Moon and beyond in a sustainable and realistic way.
The ISS isn’t the enemy of commercial space stations. In fact, the ISS is where commercial space begins.
Dr. Jeff Waksman served as a member of the Presidential Transition Team for NASA and is a former special assistant to the NASA administrator.