NASA Funds Studies on Commercializing Earth Orbit

The Cygnus cargo craft slowly departs the space station after its release from the Canadarm2 robotic arm. (Credit: NASA TV)

HOUSTON (NASA PR) — In an ongoing effort to foster commercial activity in space, NASA has selected 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit, including long-range opportunities for the International Space Station.

The studies will assess the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate private demand for commercial human spaceflight. The portfolio of selected studies will include specific industry concepts detailing business plans and viability for habitable platforms, whether using the space station or separate free-flying structures. The studies also will provide NASA with recommendations on the role of government and evolution of the space station in the process of transitioning U.S. human spaceflight activities in low-Earth orbit to non-governmental enterprises.

“When the International Space Station was established, we could not have anticipated all of the benefits it would provide,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the International Space Station division at NASA Headquarters. “We’re excited to receive this input from the commercial market and aerospace experts to help shape a future thriving space economy in which companies contract with each other to conduct research and activities in low-Earth orbit.”

The selected companies are:

  • Axiom Space, LLC, of Houston
  • Bigelow Aerospace, LLC of Las Vegas
  • Blue Origin, LLC, of Kent, Washington
  • The Boeing Company of Houston
  • Deloitte Consulting of Manhattan Beach, California
  • KBRWyle of Houston
  • Lockheed Martin Corporation of Littleton, Colorado
  • McKinsey & Company, Inc. of Washington, D.C.
  • NanoRacks, LLC, of Webster, Texas
  • Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colorado
  • Space Adventures, Inc., of Vienna, Virginia
  • Space Systems/Loral, Inc. of Palo Alto, California

The unique concepts and analysis resulting from these studies will help NASA, the administration and Congress develop a strategic approach to expanding opportunities for American industry.

NASA’s continued investment in a strong and continually growing U.S. space industry in low-Earth orbit will allow the agency to focus on farther horizons as private companies continue successfully providing cargo resupply missions to low-Earth orbit and take advantage of the ability to launch astronauts from American soil.

These awards are yet another step in NASA’s efforts to foster a broad spectrum of commercial activities in low-Earth orbit where, in the future, NASA will be one of many customers. Application of the concepts and ideas offered through this opportunity will ensure the continuity of human spaceflight and facilitate a vibrant and competitive industrial base for continued U.S. leadership in space.

The contracts and amounts are dependent on negotiations with the selectees, but NASA estimates the combined value of all awards will be approximately $11 million, with each contract not to exceed $1 million. The final study reports will be delivered to NASA in December.

Find details of the solicitation, Study for Commercialization of Low Earth Orbit, at:

https://go.nasa.gov/2Mc5VSS

  • P.K. Sink

    Smart.

  • windbourne

    quit studying.
    Do it.
    Get private space stations and then shoot for the moon. Once we are headed to the moon, many nations will want to join. That means going on the private space stations.

  • Cameron

    Ah, but studies have no risk!

  • If the commercial opportunities were so apparent, private capital would just be flooding the market. They aren’t, so it isn’t. While it might not be the BEST plan, putting up the seed capital for other companies to do “market research” to figure out if their business plan is viable is one way to lower risk and induce investment. The other option of course is just to create artificial government demand for space stations, and other services… I’m not a fan of market distortions, so I don’t favor that approach.

  • Vladislaw

    why flood the market when there isn’t OPERATIONAL commercial transportation yet? Chicken and the egg…

  • Vladislaw

    and private capital HAS been flooding into commercial space .. just not in human space facilities and it will not come until there is a redundant transportation systems in place and operational

    “Space companies received $3.9 billion in private investment during ‘the year of commercial launch’: Report

    Private investors poured $3.9 billion into commercial space companies last year, according to a report from investment firm Space Angels.

    A record 120 venture capital firms made investments in space ventures last year, the report finds.”

    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/18/space-companies-got-3-point-9-billion-in-venture-capital-last-year-report.html

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I agree wholeheartedly. The problem with advocacy is that the advocate continually accentuates the positives of the issue or plan while minimizing the negatives. As you correctly pointed out, commercial opportunities that would realize profits in the short term are not apparent so private capital remains scarce. We have many conflicting priorities for taxpayer monies so dumping large amounts of tax dollars into private projects where the government would not have some type of ownership interest seems wasteful. As for private space stations themselves as a bridge to the Moon, I think that most first-world countries will still look to their immediate needs when spending their own funds and will conclude that a presence in space is a low-priority issue compared with needs such as education, health care, jobs and housing for their own citizens.

  • You’re right Don, but the vast majority of that goes to existing PROVEN markets (GEOcomms, Earth imaging) or variations on that (LEOcomms, LEO Earth imaging). Russia/Space Adventures aren’t selling Soyuz seats “at any price”. Even SpaceX/Boeing aren’t even offering private rides yet. These markets are highly speculative, and the data we do have says that Russia could find customers at $20 million, but they can’t find customers when the price has risen to $50+ million for commercial flights and few takers at $80+ million for national flights.

  • envy

    They aren’t flying yet, either. Starliner and Dragon are big enough that they could make an interesting LEO destination in their own right, unlike Soyuz. But being bigger and not built at Russian labor rates, they are also more expensive.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I guess we’ll find out when the two vehicles are operational. Once that happens, anybody who wants to shell out the money will need a compelling reason (to them) to fly. Those vehicles are so far along in development though that it is surprising to see so few projects in development for what to do with them. It seems that the goal keeps being pushed back by advocates. First it was space hotels in LEO. Somebody must be “bending metal” by now or at least setting up financing. Next it was lunar tourism. No real progress there except Bigelow wants to “own” a piece of the Moon. I don’t see that happening but it’s a big place and I’m sure he could just set up operations and nobody would bother him – until/if a dispute over resources occurred.

  • Yup. And both of those are going after the only reliable market in America: the government. Using USG funds to develop a product for the USG to buy. While there may be additional customers in the future (we all hope) the dev budgets didn’t come from the private sector and the demand isn’t from the private sector.

  • windbourne

    Space, as it stands right now, is too expensive for true commercialization. SX is the ONLY cheap launch system, and iss is way to expensive for habitation.
    Just as NASA focused on getting launch costs low, they now need to focus on getting first leo habitation low, then lunar.
    Coming up with multiple habitats will do nothing unless they are full.
    So how do you get them full?
    BA has almost the right answer. Get nations to put together a space program and then go train/r&d on these. Problem is, that few nations have a reason to do this. As such, a reason has to come about. What would make them push forward? Commercialization is too expensive. So is basic R&D. Therefore, it has to be a different reason.
    The moon.
    If NASA helps 2-3 companies get vetted, and then announces that iss partners AND new space are going to the moon by 2023-5, then nations will want to come. Norway, Sweden, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, etc will happily pay the low prices to launch on SX, and BO to get to one of multiple Leo stations. They will train for being on the lunar base that would be setup quickly. In the meantime, Leo space stations prices would come down and make true commercialization a possibility by 2023-2025.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Really? Evidence? Especially given that the F9R booster and Dragon2 are reusable.

  • ThomasLMatula

    You mean news stories like this one?

    https://www.space.com/35488-private-space-station-2020-axiom-space.html

    Private Space Station Coming Soon? Company Aiming for 2020 Launch

    By Leonard David, Space.com’s Space Insider Columnist
    January 28, 2017 07:50am ET

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I read that. Pretty pictures so far. Got anything else?

  • Terry Rawnsley

    UAE claims to have a space program. Perhaps they should use some of that oil wealth to make a large capital investment in hardware. They could partner with Saudi Arabia and even Brunei. Those countries, however, are not known for giving away money without taking some portion of an ownership interest. Norway and Sweden seem too sensible to spend money just so one of their citizens can take a joyride to LEO or the Moon. Who knows about Brazil but they seem to have their hands full with earthly problems. The decision lies with each individual country but you are taking a supreme leap of faith to believe that “if you build it, they will come.”

  • This’ll be the real test of the elasticity of spaceflight demand. We saw intermittent commercial demand for Soyuz at $20M/flight, but it has virtually dried up at $50M+. Those flights benefitted from a destination: ISS. Can Bigelow or anyone else put together a similar experience for $30-40Mish and sell enough seats per flight to be profitable? As of now, they are going after sovereign customers and their letters of intent haven’t turned into actual contracts. A company like Axiom is structured to recreate a mini-ISS and serve the current ISS nations (read: governments) at a lower price.

    I’m still not seeing the makings of a “Netscape Moment.”

  • ThomasLMatula

    It’s waiting in a facility in Houston to launch as soon as the Commercial Crew rockets are finished meeting their NASA obligations. Robert Bigelow launched the two prototypes over a decade ago. He has been waiting for commercial HSF ever since to launch the real thing. In the interim when NASA asked him to add a room to ISS he built it in less than 2 years for less money than NASA would require to study it.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I can find no evidence that the B330’s have been built yet much less sit in storage. As late as last February, Bigelow was still studying the commercial demand for one of his stations.

    https://www.businessinsider.com/private-space-station-hotels-robert-bigelow-2018-2

  • windbourne

    netscape was a new product. That is why we had the massive internet build-up and then explosion.
    We have been in space for 70s years. It is been far too expensive to do much, EXCEPT for launch sats. The ISS has been a total massively expensive project and with limited returns, so far.
    Now, along comes NASA and helps fund SpaceX and they lower the costs of getting to space. And even with a major lowering, they are keeping the price double of their costs so as to pay for Starlink, BFR, etc. In several years, launch costs will drop again when BO hits the market. IOW, once competition comes.

    Multiple companies wants to do low costs space stations. The only way to make these low costs is to build them different then ISS. Axiom will likely be funded, but if they go with Europe’s tin cans, it will be way too expensive per m^3. Bigelow and ILC-Dover are the cheap ones (I think). By putting up several, they might be able to get current ISS partners to put 1-2 ppl on each. But, that will not solve the issue. The only way is to offer incentives that will drive either businesses or govs to want to use them. And when it comes to that, only the moon makes sense. Nearly all gov will want to be up there so as to avoid a repeat of what is happening in Antarctica and Arctic. Nations, mainly CHina, that have never been there are now demanding to have ownership up there. That is why once new space announces that they are going to the moon (before NASA or other nations), then many nations will gladly pay to be part of that.

    And as to costs. SX should be able to launch an F5 with dragon for say 30-40M. IOW, about 5M per seat to get ppl up there. Then you have 25-30M for cargo crafts. And yes, I can easily see SX doing just this IFF there is enough traffic. IOW, at least monthly flights and assuming that block 5 works the way it is supposed to.

  • windbourne

    Building the space station is NOT enough to get more than a casual launch.
    There needs to be a real reason why nations will want to go to space. Floating a citizen in LEO is not going to cut it.

    BUT, putting ppl on the moon, that is a different issue. By going to the moon, with a base, you can bet on it, that not only nations, but rich citizens will want to go. Heck, SX has 2 ppl that simply want to go around the moon. I will bet that they will instead change to land on the moon IF BFR flies in the next 2 years. In fact, if they can make it so that for 100M somebody can go on the moon for at least a month, then I would guess that 1000+ will want to sign up for that.

  • windbourne

    no, but I will bet that if new space gets LEO down to 10-15M / seat for say 1 month or longer, and less than 100M for 1 month on the moon, these will drive loads of national flights.

  • windbourne

    you are kidding. Right?
    SpaceX falcon and dragon were built in America on American labor rates (less than most of the wests) and SX is flying for much cheaper than Russia/China. Even with China manipulating the heck out of their money.

  • envy

    Evidence? NASA is paying ~$250 million per Dragon 2 flight and more for Starliner. That’s comparable to what Russia is charging, and a lot more than their actual internal cost.

    Maybe that will come down with reuse, but NASA hasn’t addressed the question of flying crew on a used booster, and with water landings Dragon is less reusable and more refurbish-able. Starliner is also going to be reused, Boeing is only planning on building 3 vehicles.

    If you assume 7 people per flight and reused booster and capsule, you could probably get Dragon 2 down to $10 to $15 million per seat. But then it’s strictly transportation, not a destination. Without a commercial destination station, nobody is paying that much for a flight with 6 other people. 2 or 3 is probably tops for a free flight to LEO, and that would be at least $20-30 million each, probably a bit more.

  • envy

    Where are you going to go for 1 month in LEO? Not ISS, NASA isn’t a fan of tourists there. No commercial station is near ready yet. Maybe there will be such a commercial station once commercial crew is flying and there are used Dragons and Starliners available. But you need a destination for that long a trip.