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.

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  • Hey, if Suffredini knew about this (which I bet he did), it’s no biggie. He just got himself into a position to compete for this when it came time.

    If COTS is moving from cargo to crew to space stations, it seems like NASA is may actually do what advocates have asked them to do for decades: seed a truly commercial space industry.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah, this is really exciting. In my perfect world, Bigelow could attach from 2020 into 2022, and Axiom could attach from 2022 into 2024. Ditch ISS in 2024, and have a regular commercial space station parade going on in LEO. I guess that the Russians and Chinese will have their own stations orbiting also. The only question is: can space commerce support competing stations?

  • Having to “station specific” contractors (Axiom + Bigelow) would only be good for the US. Having TWO separate, experienced contractors that have TWO completely independent technical approaches will only help in the long term. I love that we have multiple space programs!

    You certainly are hitting a real possibility. We THINK this is time is different, and we have certainly gotten further along than any time before, but it’s still guarentee it will work. Conestoga, Beal, Kistler, Spacehab… we’ve seen this story before. We’ve tried in the 70s, 80s and 90s… and all failed for myriad reasons. Have we achieved critical mass? I think so, but we’re still in that gray zone where it’s hard to know which side of the line were on.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah. A lot of this will hinge on SX and BO being able to relaunch their orbital class boosters. Man, I CAN’T WAIT until SX gives it a shot later this year.

  • patb2009

    and ATK/Orbital…

  • JamesG

    “The only question is: can space commerce support competing stations?”

    The nature of micro gravity orbital stations says yes. The requirements for doing research (lots of various experiment modules, being switched out or needing custom power and handling) vs. steady production of a product. Both of which are incompatible with the noise and bumping around of a bunch of tourists.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah, they seem to think that they have a plan for a rocket that can be competitive. At least for government launches. But will they be able to compete against SX and BO for launches to commercial stations? You tell me.

  • P.K. Sink

    Yeah, the interest is there…but the cost to LEO will be high. MIS new production plan for fiber optics is very interesting.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Of course the common thread of failure is NASA involvement which makes the industry dependent on the – a single point of failure.

    The failure may be a accident the causes loss of life, as with Challenger, causing NASA to shut down commercial activities. It may be a NASA Administrator hostile to space commerce monkey-wrenching it with unreasonable requirements. It may be Congress just deciding to run off in another direction. But when you business model requires the government it is always one decision away from failure.

    That is why innovation and wealth creation are the result of market based economies. The are robust because of the number of entrepreneurs in competition of the money of millions of consumers. As soon as government start manipulating markets through subsidies, being an anchor customer or other assistance programs is reduces that robustness with the government instead of the market picking winners and losers.

    If you want a good case study look at the government’s assistance in the solar energy industry in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. When cheap oil, and a change of Administration, resulted in the government withdrawing that support the industry nearly disappeared overnight and took decades to recover.

  • ThomasLMatula

    A lot will hinge on the ISS surviving a few more years before suffering a major failure that requires it to be deorbited. Quite honestly attaching commercial modules to it is like tying up your sailboat to the RMS Titanic.

  • P.K. Sink

    I like the analogy. I’m guessing that Suffredini’s plan is a lot more ISS dependent than Bigelow’s.

  • P.K. Sink

    Too true. But as far as commercial space goes, at this particular time, I don’t see an alternative.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    There have been two commercial successes in space – communications satellites and Cubesats. Companies have been set up to service these markets. Other markets may follow.

    Attempts are currently being made to create a market for commercial/educational probes on the Moon and manned space flight. I wish them lots of luck.