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NASA-Funded LEO Commercialization Studies Yield Diverse Results

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 3, 2019
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Credit: Axiom Space

Last week, NASA released the results of low Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization studies the space agency commissioned 12 companies to conduct. The space agency is looking to become a tenant in LEO as it aims to return astronauts to the moon in 2024.

Credit: Blue Origin

The studies were conducted by a diverse group of companies ranging from big aerospace such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to up and comers like Blue Origin and NanoRacks to business consultants Deloitte and McKinsey&Company.

Credit: Boeing

The studies recommended a varied series of actions involving both the International Space Station (ISS) and private facilities. The plans were summarized in a PowerPoint presentation that the space agency released.

Credit: Deloitte

NASA and its international partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have agreed to operate ISS through 2024. At that point, it would like to turn over station operations to the private sector and be a tenant on the facility. The space agency does not want to serve as the anchor tenant responsible for the bulk of expenses. (NASA currently spends about $3 billion per year operating the station.)

Credit: KBRwyle

The alternative to commercializing the space station would be to decommission it. That would be a lengthy, complicated an expensive process. Leading figures in Congress have opposed any effort to end ISS operations in 2024. They would like the program extended to 2028 or 2030.

Credit: Lockheed Martin

A key issue is when there would be sufficient demand to continue operating the station on a largely commercial basis. Some experts are skeptical about whether that will occur by 2024.

Credit; McKinsey&Company

NanoRacks, which arranges for experiments to be flown aboard ISS, has proposed converting an upper stage Centaur booster into a private space station.

Credit: NanoRacks

Northrop Grumman is interested in modifying Cygnus spacecraft used to deliver supplies to ISS as the basis for commercial station.

Credit: Northrop Grumman

Sierra Nevada Corporation believes that the cargo module it is developing for its Dream Chaser spacecraft could be used for a space station.

Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation

Space Adventures, best known for sending tourists to ISS aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft, believes ISS could be converted into a private facility by 2028.

Credit: Space Adventures

SSl envisions satellite fabrication taking place on orbit.

Credit: SSL/Maxar