NASA RFI Could Lead to Private Modules on Space Station

Robert Bigelow describes his company's space station module. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
Robert Bigelow describes his company’s space station module. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

NASA has released a request for information (RFI) seeking ideas from industry about how to maximize commercial use of the International Space Station (ISS) that could lead to privately-built space modules being attached to the orbiting laboratory.

“NASA is looking to increase private sector demand for space research and expand on the work of Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the manager of the ISS National Laboratory,” the agency said in the RFI. “NASA is not only interested in technical solutions to advance these goals, but also in contract or agreement structures that potential offerors would see as beneficial to advance private sector demand for low Earth orbit research.”

NASA wants to see what industry can do with the following space station capabilities:

Currently Available

  • Common Berthing Mechanism ports, if the user provides equivalent capability to maintain ISS functionality;
  • Trunnion pins where hardware can be attached;
  • Other unique interfaces or capabilities of the ISS as suggested by the offeror.

Future Availability

  • Common Berthing Mechanism attachment site at Node 3 Aft.

Bigelow Aerospace’s BEAM module is currently attached to this docking port as part of a two-year study of inflatable habitation technology. BEAM will be detached from the station to burn up in the atmosphere in 2018, freeing up the berthing mechanism for other uses.

BEAM is a test module that has no scientific equipment or capabilities. Bigelow and other companies are proposing commercial modules where experiments and research could be conducted.

In April, company founder Robert Bigelow announced a partnership with United Launch Alliance (ULA) to launch two B330 inflatable modules into space. One of the modules would be attached to the space station if the company can reach an agreement with NASA.

Last month, former NASA ISS manager Michael Suffredini unveiled plans to attach a module ISS where commercial research and development would be done. The plan would be to undock the module when ISS operations are decommissioned to form the core of a commercial space station. NASA expects ISS to be in operation until 2024 and possibly longer.

Suffredini is now president of commercial space at Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies. A new venture named Axiom Space is being spun off to develop commercial space modules.

“NASA does not have unique funds for this activity,” the agency wrote in the RFI. “Respondents are also requested to address International Space Station (ISS) resource access along with commercial market demand and private funding considerations.”

However, the space agency said it might be able to cover integration costs of modules and other technologies under its ISS budget.