NASA updates plans for commercial space station use

WASHINGTON — NASA has released additional details about how it plans to use commercial space stations after the International Space Station retires, as some in the industry look to accelerate NASA’s support for them.

NASA published two white papers on Feb. 13 as part of a request for information (RFI) for its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations effort to support the development of commercial stations. The documents provide new details about how NASA expects to work with companies that operate these stations and the agency’s needs to conduct research there.

A white paper lists NASA’s anticipated resource needs for these stations, including crew time, power, and volume, broken down for each of the major agency programs anticipated to use commercial stations. Companies sought more detail about NASA’s requirements to aid in planning their stations.

“The utilization document is extremely important because it contains a verified and quantified list of potential utilization needs to help guide the industry’s size and equip its concepts,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. that accompanies the RFI. He added that while NASA doesn’t expect commercial stations to provide all of the identified capabilities, the agency wants to give companies “an idea of ​​the type and scope of equipment and facilities we’ve used at the station in the past and what we may need in the future.” ”

Overall, including resources that must be reserved for a successor to the ISS National Laboratory, NASA expects to require 3,000 to 4,000 crew hours per year, which NASA expects to provide with two astronauts in a commercial station. The agency said, however, that it is open for private astronauts to carry out some of the research activities.

NASA says it expects to run 130 to 230 experiments a year, using up to 24 cubic meters of storage. He envisions indoor experiments and equipment needing 42 kilowatts of power, while five to eight outdoor experiment sites would need an additional five to eight kilowatts. NASA anticipates the need to transfer 5,000 kilograms of cargo to commercial stations and return 2,000 kilograms of cargo.

The second white paper describes the concept of operations that NASA envisages for the use of commercial space stations. The 40-page document outlines in detail what it expects from these stations in terms of capabilities, capabilities and operations, as well as the oversight the agency expects to have.

The document notes, as an example, that it will not require commercial space stations to have an airlock and be capable of supporting spacewalks. It adds, however, that such capabilities can be valuable for repairing and recovering external loads and that, without them, commercial providers should offer alternatives for installing external loads.

NASA expects its astronauts on commercial space stations to work alongside commercial astronauts, including those employed by the station owner. These commercial astronauts, NASA predicts, will be primarily responsible for maintaining the station, but NASA said it expects some sharing of these tasks, noting that “crew cohesion can be negatively affected” if they are not shared.

The two documents, NASA said in the RFI, are intended to help companies as they work on their commercial space station concepts and “maintain open communications with the private sector.”

NASA is currently working with four companies that have proposed commercial stations. Three teams, led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman, won Space Act-funded deals in late 2021 through the Commercial LEO Destinations program to work on their station concepts. Axiom Space has a separate agreement with NASA to allow the installation of commercial modules on the ISS that will be the precursor to an autonomous commercial station.

One executive, however, said NASA needs to trim that list. “We are concerned that with four competitors in the game much longer, we are just diluting what is only a nascent market, if there is a market,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, Axiom Space’s chief government and external affairs director. , during a panel at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference on Feb.

Such dilution, she argued, would ultimately delay the development of commercial stations. “We’re concerned that without very clear milestones for downselect and consolidation, we’re actually going to extend the time period needed to get things into low Earth orbit after the ISS,” she said. “We have some concerns about this approach.”

This is when China operates its Tiangong space station and requests payloads from other countries, including through the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs. “We already have Americans running companies interested in LEO who are losing customers to the Chinese space station,” she said.

However, Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, gave no indication on the panel that NASA would accelerate any plans to select fewer station providers.

“I appreciate Mary Lynne’s comments,” she said, but added that the agency is still trying to understand how it can use the commercial stations to meet the exploration and research needs currently served by the ISS.

“We still need to know how to make commercial LEO destinations,” she said, including technical and regulatory issues. “This is really the moment we need to listen.”

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