Enabling Technologies for Commercialization of Low-Earth Orbit
One of NASA’s strategic goals is to “Lay the foundation for America to maintain a constant human presence in low-Earth orbit (LEO) enabled by a commercial market." To achieve that goal, NASA is committed to developing a robust LEO economy and enabling both the supply side (i.e. future LEO destinations providing services for a fee) and the demand side (i.e. need for on-orbit services for Government requirements or to produce products of commercial value). NASA recently released a solicitation for phase one of the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLDs) project. The CLDs project will enable the development of commercially owned and operated LEO destinations that are safe, reliable, and cost-effective and allows NASA to be one of many customers. The International Space Station (ISS) is also enabling the development of commercially owned and operated LEO destinations by hosting a new commercial segment by Axiom Space that will attach to the ISS Node 2 forward port and expand the habitable volume for commercial research and other activities.
Creating a robust LEO economy will be dependent on bringing many new businesses and people into space. It will require the development of not only the supply of services but also the demand for those capabilities. NASA will soon see the first private astronaut mission to the ISS. Private astronaut missions will be dedicated missions that are privately funded, fully commercial spaceflights on a commercial launch vehicle for enabling tourism, outreach, commercial research, and approved commercial and marketing activities on the space station. NASA has also opened the space station for business by expanding opportunities for in-space manufacturing, marketing, and promoting commercial products and services on the station. As NASA increases the opportunities for business on the space station, it is likely that the number and types of companies taking advantage of those opportunities will also increase. That, in turn, will help create more demand.
NASA’s Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew Programs are also enabling multiple companies to develop and operate the next generation of spacecraft and launch systems. This commercial transportation to and from the space station has fueled the growing market share of U.S. launch providers in the world marketplace. It is providing expanded utility, additional research time, and broader opportunities for discovery and space exploration. An important goal of this commercialization strategy is to encourage the development of new industrial capabilities, enabling these companies to sell future services to all customers, not just NASA.
Doing business in space has become one of the fastest-growing businesses on Earth. The space economy has expanded by over 60% in the last decade and is now valued at roughly $400 billion. A robust LEO economy ensures national interests for research and development in space are fulfilled while allowing NASA to focus government resources on deep space exploration through the Artemis program and land the first woman and next man on the surface of the Moon in 2024.
NASA is tasked with accelerating enabling technologies for this emerging LEO economy. Technologies of specific interest to NASA include but are not limited to:
1. Technologies that reduce the cost of transportation of humans and non-human cargo to and from the International Space Station, LEO, and/or future Commercial LEO Destinations.
Market studies have shown that current transportation costs represent a high barrier to entry into the LEO economy. Driving down transportation costs could help enable increase demand in LEO for various activities such as tourism, outreach, research, and commercial and marketing activities.
2. Rapid, reliable, and cost-effective re-entry capabilities to return of scientific samples and small payloads from the International Space Station, future Commercial LEO Destinations, or both.
Market studies have shown that the current frequency of transportation represents a high barrier to entry into the LEO economy. Right now, downmass from the ISS is a premium commodity, limiting the amount of science, and payloads that can be returned to Earth. Increasing the frequency by which payloads can return to Earth could help enable a more robust LEO economy.
3. Safe, reliable, and cost-effective extravehicular activities (EVA) suits for space tourism (either tethered or non-tethered).
Theonly EVA suits now available are NASA-owned and operated, currently constraining a level of demand for private astronaut missions and other commercial LEO activities. A cost-effective solution for EVA suits for space tourism – that multiple people could utilize in space – could help stimulate the demand for space tourism.