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Future of space station commercialization needs fresh ideas and support, panel finds

The International Space Station.
(Image: © NASA)

Pushing commercialization on the International Space Station to the next level will take a combination of government will, tax incentives and regulatory clarity, said panelists at an online panel onThursday (Aug. 27).

Participants in the "Building the [low Earth orbit] LEO Economy" panel at the ISS R&D (Research and Development) conference explored how the space station is benefitting business here on Earth and what could be done to make space even more appealing to companies.

Private efforts on the space station are by no means a new idea. Management of the U.S. National Laboratory on the station was contracted to a third party, the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), in 2010. That same year, SpaceX sent the first commercial cargo ship to the space station. 

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Space tourists have paid millions of dollars each for short-term stays on the station and a previous orbital complex, the Soviet-Russian Mir. Even before that, companies have hosted advertising campaigns in space, such as the time Pepsi and Coca-Cola went head to head in orbital taste tests 35 years ago.

But two things have shifted in recent discussions about privatizing the station. First, NASA is allocating 5% of the station's resources to private spaceflight, according to several speakers at the conference. Axiom Space appears to be the first ready to take advantage of both, with a possible astronaut flight with SpaceX scheduled to launch in 2021 and a module ready for 2024 in partnership with Thales Alenia.

Second, NASA is thinking about what should replace the space station, which can last for so long, in low Earth orbit. The agency wants to give companies a head start so that they can create private facilities in the future, where NASA would be a paying customer, not the facility provider. But to prepare, companies need government funding and updated regulations, companies urged during the panel.

"The U.S. government … is still challenged a bit with the amount of money that's available to NASA and other government agencies to push the commercial effort along," Michael Suffredini, co-founder and CEO of Axiom, said in live remarks at the conference. Suffredini was also NASA's space station program manager from 2005 to 2015.

Congress has been cool to the idea of commercialization, appropriating $15 million — one tenth of NASA's $150 million request — to low-Earth orbit privatization efforts for the fiscal year 2019. 

According to Suffredini, Congress needs to understand why this commercialization is important.. The financial return, he cautioned, would probably be 15 years away — but by then, he said, "I think production manufacturing in space is going to be huge."

Additionally, companies looking to invest in space need clarity about what NASA's plans are after the space station program, the panelists said, ends. The station program could wrap upas soon as 2024, although it may continue through 2028. The decision is subject to congressional budget priorities, which could change given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the upcoming election, which could see party changes in the White House or Congress in January. 

"NASA needs to signal the level of use they intend to have post-ISS," Andrew Rush, CEO of Made in Space, a company that does additive manufacturing on the space station, said during the panel. Rush also serves on the NASA advisory council for regulation and policy.

Speaking of regulation, that's another muddy area for space commercialization, particularly regarding how non-governmental entities operating in space are supervised. There was a long discussion among panelists concerning Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty, which says that nations that signed the treaty of international responsibility for governmental and non-governmental entities in space. The panelists agreed that more clarity is needed for companies to figure out what to do next.

Some players in the low-Earth orbit economy aren't even going all the way up to orbit, Richard DalBello, Virgin Galactic's vice president of business development, added. Virgin and its competitor Blue Origin are working to fly both space tourists and commercial payloads on brief suborbital rides. DalBello said that the four to five minutes of microgravity Virgin provides is enough to do fundamental research.

According to Bryce Analytics and Engineering CEO Carissa Christensen, all parties involved should think hard about how low-Earth orbit activities can benefit people and companies on Earth. 

The clock is ticking, Nicole Wagner, president and CEO of biotechnology startup and retinal implant researcher LambdaVision, said.Companies feel that commercialization efforts are starting to hit their stride, and acceleration is needed soon, she said. What is next for low Earth orbit commercialization generally, and the International Space Station specifically, are "really important discussions" that need to be clarified soon, to learn "what's currently available to companies like myself — and future companies — to do manufacturing on board" the space station, Wagner added.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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