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.