Space Commerce

White House Strategy Reveals Priorities for Commercial Space Stations

By Elizabeth Howell
May 5, 2023
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White House Strategy Reveals Priorities for Commercial Space Stations
The International Space Station.
Image credit: NASA

The U.S. government recently announced a new strategy for commercial activities in low Earth orbit (LEO), which aims to “promote a market for space-based research by public and private U.S. entities” during the transition to commercial space stations, in the words of its authors.

The strategy was issued March 31 by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). This was a crucial point in the International Space Station’s history: just weeks later, on April 27, NASA issued a statement noting that most of the ISS partners (the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan) had signed on to maintain ISS operations until at least 2030 but that Russia will withdraw in 2028 to pursue its own space program. How NASA plans to manage the loss of such a major partner has not yet been disclosed publicly, though the strategy document offers clues.

Commercial activity in LEO

Commercial activity has been ongoing on the ISS for many years. Numerous private companies already participate, especially under management of the non-profit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) U.S. National Laboratory. There also are entities like Bigelow Aerospace, which sent an inflatable module to the ISS in 2016 to test its resiliency with the ultimate goal of building a space station with more inflatable rooms on board. Axiom Space also aims to create modules for the ISS that can detach as free-flying stations. The Houston-based firm has already sent up one private crew (Axiom-1) and a second (Axiom-2) is expected to launch this month.

NASA is nevertheless funding a few commercial efforts to create new private space stations, starting with an early-stage early-stage tranche of funding in December 2021, when it awarded $415.6 million to private companies via three Space Act Agreements. Three U.S. companies – Nanoracks LLC ($160 million), Blue Origin ($130 million), and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. ($125.6 million) – received nearly equal share of the funds to lead consortiums now working on the designs of the space stations.

As the multinational ISS is replaced by several private space stations managed by U.S. companies, the new strategy aims to smooth the on-ramp and to “ensure the United States remains the global leader and partner of choice for orbital platforms and other space research facilities for decades to come,” as Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, OSTP assistant director for space policy, said in a recent White House announcement. However, the strategy doesn’t mention competition posed by Russia and China’s respective space programs, which have been the subject of numerous statements by senior NASA officials and defense officials in hearings of recent years.)

Pillars of OSTP strategy

There are five major policy objectives in the strategy. Briefly put, the first is to continue science and technology development with an eye to “research capabilities” proposed by major U.S. laboratories, along with “repeatable experiments” in strategy areas like robotics or high-speed communications.

The second is using LEO as the stage for international collaboration on world challenges, such as agriculture and national security – likely with existing U.S. allies and signatories of the Artemis Accords. A potential LEO National Laboratory would foster collaboration between other nations and with U.S. government, academic, and industry entities, to establish standards in data-sharing and (where possible) open-access information.

The third pillar concerns market opportunities, innovation, and stability during the transition from the ISS. Factors considered under this pillar include using space for “solving real-world challenges such as seeking more effective treatments for cancer.” The strategy also pledges access in some yet-undetermined way for smaller companies while lowering research and development barriers such as funding and regulations. However, the strategy, which is a high-level document of about a dozen pages, lacks specific details on these points.

The fourth pillar concerns international collaboration with “allies and partners,” especially under the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including with what the U.S. terms “developing countries.” Included in this is a set of proposed standards for “policies and practices for human spaceflight safety.”

The last pillar concerns education and science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Proposed initiatives include “professional support” for educators to provide “up-to-date content knowledge” to students, along with the opportunity to livestream experiments from orbit. The strategy also aims to increase diversity within STEM fields. Just last month, the NASA Office of the Inspector General found little change in diversity at NASA despite more than a decade of efforts, making this a particularly relevant goal

The STEM pillar includes a nod to a September 2022 effort championed by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris to increase diversity of folks in STEM fields. Harris publicized this notion via partnerships with companies including SpaceX or Blue Origin, which are working with post-secondary college students from underrepresented areas. Similarly, the new space strategy aims to open up more opportunities to graduates of “two-year learning institutions and trade schools for these often-underserved learning communities.”

In her remarks concerning the strategy, Uzo-Okoro pointed to the years of public-private partnerships the United States has undertaken that created “investments in space research and technology development, and strategic partnerships and collaborations.” But how these principles will be executed in the post-ISS era remains to be seen.

That is in part due to the 2024 federal election, which will bring a fresh set of people to Congress. While the space strategy brings more direction to NASA initiatives to create commercial space stations, and U.S. President Joe Biden’s pledge to run again implies stability for the space agency over the next few years, a potential changing of the guard could result in changes to NASA’s priorities, goals, and funding.

Business and science reporter, researcher and consultant.