NASA to Move Ahead With Adding Private Modules, Capabilities to Space Station

BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)
BEAM module (Credit: NASA TV)

NASA will move ahead with an initiative that will allow private companies to attach commercial modules and other technologies to the International Space Station, officials announced today.

In a post on the NASA and White House websites, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Presidential Science Advisor John Holdren said the private sector had responded strongly to a space agency request for information (RFI) issued earlier this year offering the station for a variety of commercial uses.

Recently, NASA asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS. One of the potential uses of such a port would be preparation for one or more future commercial stations in Low Earth Orbit, ready to take over for the Space Station once its mission ends in the 2020s. The private sector responded enthusiastically, and those responses indicated a strong desire by U.S. companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs.

As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station. While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors, the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space. A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations.

In the RFI, NASA asked industry how it would use the following 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 the docking port at Node 3 Aft 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.

In June, 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 separate the module from ISS when the facility is decommissioned to form the core of a commercial space station. NASA expects ISS to be in operation until 2024 and possibly as long as 2028.

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.

The Node 3 Aft is not the only berthing location where commercial modules could be attached. Modules at other locations would have to include berthing mechanisms to replace the ones they were using to attach to the space station.

“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.




  • windbourne

    Several thoughts:
    1) there is plenty of room on the iss for doing science. In fact, if the personal closets were moved out of the core iss, it would make a great deal of room for more equipment.
    2) it actually make more sense to have any future module become a living quarters with its own life support, kitchen, bathroom, sleeping quarters, rest area, etc. It is easy enough to add science equipment. It is difficult dealing with these other issues.
    3) actually, there could be 2 new modules. Lose Leonardo. Let Bigelow, along with another module be added. Just as we see issues with human and cargo launchers, we really need 2 different private systems. Note that Leonardo holds 31 m^3 of space, so any replacement module will hold a lot more.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Bigelow B330 modules have docking ports at both ends, so adding a second module is easy. Although Bigelow would have to be told which type of port in advance. The combination of a Common Berthing Module at one end with the NASA Docking System at the other is possible.

  • I think Bigelow and others want to streamline the processes for doing work on ISS. I don’t know how big a headache that really is, but these companies seem to think it’s worth having another set of hardware up there.

    Since they want to rent/lease work areas, the kitchens/living space plan doesn’t really meld with that business model. If their business models are correct (still a big IF), then the living space represents a cost whereas the work space represents a valuable asset.

    I hope that between Bigelow, Axiom or whoever, we can find some meaningful things that will generate enough revenue to at least lower NASA’s financial commitment to space stations. (my guess is they will be involved somehow for a few decades to come)

  • Jeff2Space

    Especially considering that the original (aluminum shell) HAB module was cancelled long ago.

    The original inflatable space station module proposal was TRANSHAB, which was not only cancelled, but NASA was barred from spending anymore money on it. So, the technology was transferred to Bigelow Aerospace.

    The irony here is that a Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module could very well be selected to become a new “commercial” ISS module, proving (to some people at least) that TRANSHAB would have been the way to go all along.

  • JamesG

    The inflatables with their compound curved interiors are a bitch to engineer for fittings and component integration. They are better suited as pure human habitat which is great if you’ve got tourists bouncing around or can afford dedicated mass & volume for those darn biologicals. Not so much as experiment/production workspaces. That is why it got dropped from the ISS.

  • windbourne

    I believe that NDS/LIDS is capable of being a berthing ring as well. IOW, not needed.
    However, not sure that I would want to add to BA-330 when a large unit can replace leonardo. seems like it would be better balance, though not sure that is a big deal.

  • windbourne

    Well, their business model for private space station is to have 2 or more modules of which one is living quarters and the others are science/work. And when an astronaut goes up, they need LIVING quarters that work. In addition, I would want it vetted before going up there. Best way to vet it, is to have it on the ISS.
    In addition, with this being 1/3 or 1/2 of the volume of ISS, it would make sense that it can be living quarter AND if wanted, science. Though, I suspect that NASA would gladly rent it for living quarters if it enabled them to add more ppl, added more science back on the ISS portion, AND was liked by the crew.

    But, I agree that these companies want to get attached to the ISS and get their equipment vetted by NASA.

  • windbourne

    you forget about the inner core, which is not curved. It should be possible to add units to the outside of that.
    BUT, I agree that having some space in there, perhaps with some rooms, would be well liked.
    What interest me, is that I am guessing that with a working unit, AND working human and cargo launchers, that it would enable more astronauts up there and have them run rotations.
    For example, if they can close off the noise from the ISS and have living quarters in BA-330, it might enable having 3-4 ppl working at a time in the core ISS, while 3-4 sleep and another 3-4 relax.

  • windbourne

    oh, there is no doubt in my mind that transhab was the way to go.
    BUT, the GOP killed and Clinton fortunately pushed to keep it alive in private space. I would say that it will make a HUGE difference in LEO, lunar, and mars.

  • Bulldog

    From Congressional Quarterly Press:
    “…Gordon and other Democrats expressed concern over language in the House bill that would prohibit NASA from spending money on an inflatable module called TransHab as a home for astronauts on the International Space Station. NASA is testing the module as an alternative to the planned aluminum quarters.

    Sensenbrenner said the language was added because GOP members are concerned that TransHab might lead to a redesign of the station. “If the station is going to stay on schedule, we’ve got to stick with the existing design,” he said.”

  • JamesG

    “you forget about the inner core, which is not curved. It should be possible to add units to the outside of that.”

    Which is not efficient use of space and means you can’t take advantage of using that bulk as rad shielding.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    The CBM and NDS are different sizes so they cannot berth to each other.

    Two NDS can be either berthed or docked with each other. To berth them at least one of the spacecraft has to be equipped with a robot arm.

  • Randy Carson

    How DARE you respond with facts when someone is trying to blame Republicans for something!

  • windbourne

    actually, this is exactly what you DO want.
    The walls of BA-330 will be lined with water storage. Water is GREAT for stopping radiation. When it encounters a particle, it absorbs it, without giving off other particles.
    OTOH, when metals absorb a particle, they will give off 1OR MORE particles that are not as energetic, but, can actually do more damage.
    That is why the BA-330 1 meter thick wall with water lining is preferable over the thin metal cans that the ISS is made of.

    And as to the metal equipment, it is better served being in the middle and away from radiation as well. Radiation can and will throw off many experiments.

  • windbourne

    right. So, if the BA-330 is equipped with LIDS/NDS on both sides, it can then be docked or berthed. For the ISS, a simple adapter will allow for berthing.

  • JamesG

    Do that maths on how much water you would need (to launch from Earth at >$1K per lb.) to fill a BA-330’s liner.

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Berthing is where a new module is sent up in the cargo hold of the Space Shuttle. The space station’s robotic arm is used as a crane to move the module to the required port and inserted into place. The module is than fastened in place, making it part of the spacestation.

    The big advantage of berthing was that modules did not need rocket engines. With the retirement of the Space Shuttles berthing now requires new modules to be delivered by a vehicle equipped with rocket engines.

  • windbourne

    so, you are suggesting that if the water does not go into the liners on the wall, that it will be free of costs?
    IOW, we will magically get all that water as long as it does not go into liners. Right?

  • JamesG

    Er… whut?

  • windbourne

    well, all stations and human capsule have to carry water for the crew. The western side of ISS carries 160 gallon water storage. After all, humans DO have to drink, wash, use a bathroom, eat, etc.
    Your statement about the costs of the water implies that there is ZERO costs for the water if kept in these central tank, vs. multiple liners.

  • JamesG

    Um… no. In order for an inflatable (or any other structure) to gain the radiation protection benefit you mention, it has to be filled with the requisite bulk water.
    Seriously do the math (hint: it is TONS of water).

    That will probably never be practical, even after the heavy lifters start flying, for anything that has to be maneuvered. This is why the ISS has tin cans with all the machinery bolted to the outer walls.

  • A displacement ton of water is roughly a cubic meter, so I’m not getting your statement. You are certainly not nuancing out the relationships between mass and force with regards to various maneuvering rates and displacements in space applications.

  • windbourne

    Look, first off, several of the fabric layers are designed to take out alpha, beta and about 1/4 – 1/2 of the gamma.
    So, how good is water at taking out gamma?
    7 cm of water will take out 1/2 of the gamma. 14 cm will take out 1/4. So, with the fabric, taking out 1/2, and combined with 5″ of water, you will have knocked out 1/8 of the gamma.
    The metal cans do not even come CLOSE to this. In fact, the metal cans take that high energy gamma and then create MULTIPLE low-energy radiation ( dominantly gamma and beta).

    And as to the cans combined with machinery on the outer edge, most of that is air. Very little will be stopping ionizing radiation. And sadly, you will get more and more scatter.

  • JamesG

    The metal cans take advantage of the “spaced armor” effect. The gamma generated on impact with the TPS and pressure hull of the module then hits all the machinery, stores, and their inner covers. I can’t recall off the top of my head what it is, but there are papers you can look up.

    Point being, hauling enough water up to make the shielding ability of an inflatable practical is prohibitively expensive. No one is going to do it. That is why the BA-330 has that meter thick HDPE foam core to try to equal what the current tin-cans provide.

    I really like inflatables as a solution, but they are never going to be on the ISS. That station can’t handle them for a whole host of reasons we’ve discussed before. It is a concept for next gen spacecraft and when we have access to cheaper sources of water (Lunar, etc.).

  • therealdmt

    Well, he actually backed up (with facts) what windbourne said — Democratic congressmen wanted TransHab and Republican congressmen killed it.

    However, his quote added interesting context — the Republicans said they killed it because they were leery of a costly redesign. Considering how long the ISS was in the design phase and how expensive it had gotten, that could have been a very reasonable concern.

    My memories of the time are a bit vague, but I recall wanting TransHab, which was being billed as a very promising technology (for the reasons we alll know) and being dismayed that it was canceled. And I don’t see how adding one inflatable module (to give us the crew quarters that ended up just going missing — “Just camp out in the labs, boys!”) would lead to a costly redesign of the entire station.

    Still, just wanting to close the design and get the damn thing built without pouring yet another bucket of money into it may have been a very legitimate course of action. I’d have to look into it more to get a better feel for what political maneuvering was going on at the time to have a strong opinion on who was right or wrong.

  • Randy Carson

    I have seen plenty of projects get dragged out because someone has yet another great idea to make it better, until the money runs out and it never gets built. At some point you just need to freeze the design and build it, whatever it is, even if it isn’t the optimal solution as long it is “good enough”.

    In this case both sides had valid arguments, but the ISS was already far behind schedule and running over budget. A lot of people were losing patience and delaying it further for something that might not even work as well cold have killed the whole thing.

    We can disagree on the best course of action, but to distort the issue into a partisan urinary competition is just dishonest.

  • Hauling ANYTHING up right now is prohibitively expensive, that’s why they haul up high value national security satellites and for profit equipment and infrastructure. The ISS is unique.

    It’s not prohibitively expensive to haul up water because it’s absolutely required for humans to live in space. If living in space is the goal, large amounts of water are required, and so regardless is makes pretty good sense to store it as sheilding.

    Your claims seem a bit irrational, almost hysterical, to me.

  • windbourne

    have you ever worked with radiation?
    Metal, esp, the stuff in the science areas, are LOUSY for protection. What 5″ of water protects requires about 3′ of lead. That scatter that metal generates is HUGE.
    And yes, I have worked with radiation. In fact, because I had been exposed to tritium (and p32), I choose to not have kids for a couple of decades before being tested. Back then, I was a skinny thing and tritium goes for fat. For a skinny guy, that will be in the scrotum.

  • JamesG

    You really aren’t reading my posts are you?