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NASA is again trying to commercialize the ISS

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One of NASA's new low-earth orbit efforts is the provision of a docking port on the ISS that allows companies to connect commercial modules to the station. (Source: Bigelow Aerospace)

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When NASA decided to announce its long-awaited new initiative for support Due to commercial activity on the International Space Station and Earth orbit, NASA Headquarters or its other centers have been shunned as venue for the announcement. Instead, the agency went to New York City and held the announcement on the Nasdaq Stock Exchange, a kind of stage set, to argue that the broadcaster was open to business.

"Today is a very remarkable day," said Jeff DeWit, NASA's chief financial officer, at the meeting. "NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities like never before."

"NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities like never before," said DeWit.

What the agency introduced over the course of an hour was a multi-level approach to stimulating both the demand for facilities such as the ISS and the supply of future commercial facilities, which NASA hopes will one day follow the station.

Most attention was attracted by NASA, which opened the station to "private astronauts" who could be space tourists or explorers. NASA says they plan to allow two such missions to the station, using Boeing and SpaceX commercial vehicles under development to fly to the station every year from 2020 onwards. These missions would take up to 30 days to get to the station.

The use of "mission" was vague in the announcement, leading some to conclude that this meant two people using seats in these vehicles, much as space travelers had previously flown to the station on Soyuz spacecraft. However, the agency says that "mission" refers to actual flights from spacecraft to the station that could carry multiple people.

"We allow up to two commercial flights per year with private astronauts, which could potentially be a dozen or so private astronauts per year, depending on how many seats they would like to carry," said Robyn Gatens. Deputy Director of the ISS Program at NASA Headquarters.

It would be up to these commercial crew companies and their partners to sell the seats and make all the arrangements. "It's not trivial for them to go out and just make arrangements to fly somebody, and they need to work together in a variety of companies to figure out how to do that," said Bill Gerstenmaier, assistant NASA administrator for Exploration and operations on humans.

These companies must make arrangements with NASA to facilitate these flights, and NASA must also pay the cost of accommodating these private astronauts at the station. According to a pricing policy published by NASA as part of the strategy, private astronauts must pay $ 1

1,250 per day for "regenerative life support and lavatory" and $ 22,500 per day for supplies, including food and air. (By comparison, private astronauts can downlink data at just $ 50 per gigabyte, which is a more reasonable rate than some international roaming plans.)

Despite these challenges, space tourism companies welcomed this aspect of NASA's announcement. "We are delighted with NASA's announcement today and welcome NASA's efforts in the consulting industry to explain its strategy and policies," said Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, who arranged 2001's space tourist flights from Dennis Tito to Guy Laliberté in 2009.

"We thought it was important not to piece together everything," said Gerstenmaier about the different parts of the strategy.

"Bigelow Space Operations Has Been Making Significant Deposits to Fly Up to 16 People on Four Special SpaceX Flights to the International Space Station," Bigelow Aerospace Tweeted. The company has neither explained the dollar value of these deposits nor provided information on customers who may have signed up.

Bigelow and others are likely to be interested in another aspect of NASA's strategy. The agency announced that it would release a request to provide a docking port for a commercial module on the Harmony module this month as part of its NEXT Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NEXTEP) program.

Gatens said there is "a strong desire to use a docking dock for space stations as a first step towards potential commercial near-Earth orbit targets," among the companies that have participated in LEO commercialization studies completed last year funded by NASA. "Companies will be able to demonstrate commercial activities and operations while connected to the station at this port." NASA expects to grant a company access to the port before the end of the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30.

NASA also plans to seek proposals for future free-flying commercial space station partnerships through a separate part of NextSTEP. "NASA intends to obtain services from any commercial location through a future tender, after more information about the services it may offer," the agency said.

Companies that previously proposed ISS modules or free-flying stations said they had been encouraged by the news. "NanoRacks believes it is well-positioned to drive further growth in the emerging low-earth orbit market," said Jeff Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, in a statement. "We are currently analyzing the right ways to compete for these new opportunities, both in terms of hardware and services."

As part of the new strategy, NASA issued a new policy on commercial use of the station. This policy includes a price list that covers cargo to and from the station, as well as the use of crew time and facilities (the same price list applies to private astronauts.) These resources represent five percent of the station's NASA allocation.

This would allow not only commercial research but also marketing applications. "Approved activities must be related to NASA's mission to stimulate the economy in low earth orbit, or to require the unique environment or microgravity," said Gatens.

However, there will still be limitations on what NASA astronaut can do, especially in marketing activities. "US astronauts can participate in some marketing activities as they move behind the camera," Gatens said. "For things beyond this scope, private astronauts can definitely do those activities."

"There were a lot of market predictions," Gatens said about commercial market studios. "Forecasting the profitability of these platforms is difficult."

The final elements of the overall strategy addressed demand. NASA has published in LEO a more detailed forecast of their needs, such as services they will need to acquire after the ISS to complete their missions. In addition, new research announcements were published to suggest proposals for commercial concepts in areas ranging from in-space manufacturing to drug discovery, as well as studies on the so-called "real and perceived barriers to potential new entrants" and opportunities to stimulate demand.

Some of the plans announced last Friday were not new. NASA had been discussing in recent years the offering of a docking terminal for the station, including a request for information a few years ago. Gerstenmaier said at the press conference that they had decided to merge all these initiatives into one overarching strategy that was to be implemented all at once.

"We thought it was important to put everything together rather than do it piece by piece," he said. "It took a little time to bring it all together."

Companies had been waiting more and more impatiently for these details. NASA funded 12 studies on LEO commercialization concepts last year. These studies were completed late last year, but NASA published a one-page summary of those reports only about ten days before the announcement.

At the time, these reports did not give NASA much indication of the size of the commercial LEO activity markets. "Market predictions varied widely," Gatens said at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council on May 28. "It makes it difficult to predict the profitability of these platforms. Many markets are just beginning to emerge and it's hard to predict what's going to happen. "

Before NASA published these summaries, some in the industry became increasingly impatient with the lack of progress. They urged NASA to publish summaries of the studies as well as announce how they would spend $ 40 million on the LEO commercialization financing provided by Congress for the 2019 fiscal year.

At the Space Tech Expo conference in Pasadena, California, Mike Lewis, NanoRacks' Chief Innovation Officer, said the funding could help meet the demand for the docking port. "There's another port on the station and everyone wants it," he said. "Forty million dollars would almost make you a 'T' that could give you three more locations or more."

As new as the concept of commercial use of the station may be, it's hardly a new idea. Nearly 19 years before the Nasdaq press conference on this new marketing strategy, NASA announced a similar nationwide announcement of partnership with a new company, Dreamtime Holdings, at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

The "unprecedented agreement," as stated in a NASA press release, "contains provisions that make high definition television coverage of astronaut activity aboard the International Space Station and space shuttle missions possible for the first time" Internet Searchable NASA's Best Space Images Digital Archive ".

"Not only does this bring the space program in partnership with Silicon Valley," NASA Administrator Dan Goldin said in the announcement, "but the partnership also puts NASA at the forefront of the Information Age, an innovative government at. " it is the best. "

While the ISS video was only part of the Dreamtime agreement, it took place at a time when the agency was already emphasizing the commercial use of the station when the first modules were introduced. The agency created a commercial development plan for the station and even a price list for ISS services in the late 1990s. In the meantime, Spacehab announced a partnership with Energia to develop a commercial module called Enterprise for the station's Russian segment.

But this commercial demand never materialized. Enterprise has never gone beyond the concept phase, and Dreamtime has never provided the multimedia services (which were eventually provided by NASA instead).

"We hope to develop new features that will one day be available for the space station," Gatens said. The ISS is certainly more powerful and the space industry has grown. The station is already in commercial use, with companies such as NanoRacks flying experiments to the station and small satellites deployed by the ISS.

However, there is also a new urgency with regard to the commercial use of the ISS, as NASA tries to leave it and relieve the budget. DeWit noted at the press conference that these commercial services are expected to partially offset the operating costs of the ISS, although this balance is likely to be low, at least for the foreseeable future.

Gatens said that NASA wants to help promote these commercial capabilities so that they can be used by NASA and gradually move away from the ISS in the late 2020s or beyond, without creating a void. "We hope to develop new capabilities that will one day become available for the space station," she said, "and we will begin this transition as soon as these capabilities become available."

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