Perhaps as much as NASA's higher-profile commercial crew and cargo initiatives, smaller projects such as UTC Aerospace Systems' Sabatier Reactor System (SRS) aboard the International Space Station are helping to open new business vistas in space for the private sector.

On a typical day, the reactor, positioned in the station's Tranquility module with other Environmental Control and Life Support System hardware, combines waste hydrogen from the Oxygen Generating System with CO2 from the Carbon Dioxide Removal Assembly to produce up to three liters of potable water, according to Darren Samplatsky, UTC Aerospace Systems chief engineer for the device.

In turn, NASA pays the company under the terms of a 2008 contract that specifies up to $65 million in earnings through September 2014—as long as the water is available. Launched in April 2010 on one of the last space shuttle flights and activated by International Space Station (ISS) astronauts the following October, the SRS performs so well after the break-in period that $20 million in potential earnings remain.

“It's incredibly reliable,” says Marybeth Edeen, deputy manager for the ISS program's research integration office. “Absolutely, we are interested in continuing beyond 2014.”

The basis for the agreement dates back to 2007 and discussions between UTC Aerospace Systems predecessor Hamilton Sundstrand and NASA about changes to traditional cost-plus contracting roles.

“It started off almost as a dare, or a bet with the Hamilton guys saying, 'we can do Sabatier and do it really cheap if you guys will just let us do it,'” Edeen recalls. William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for the division that has since been renamed the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, agreed to let the project proceed and ultimately launch as long as the hardware met safety requirements.

While SRS water is not essential to station operations, it does lessen resupply requirements along with the station's more complex water recovery system that recycles urine and condensate into drinkable water.

Additionally, the SRS agreement has or is serving as a pathfinder for more commercially compatible agreements with NanoRacks, for plate readers used to evaluate ISS research samples; Teledyne Brown Engineering Inc., for a pointing platform used by Earth-observation sensors; and Bigelow Aerospace's recently announced plans to test an inflatable activity module on the station (AW&ST Jan. 21, p. 13).

NASA also is considering a competitive procurement for the common berthing mechanism that will secure the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module to the station.

Part of the success of the SRS arrangement can be attributed to Hamilton's long history of space life-support system work for NASA, including the ISS generator that produces oxygen for the air supply from water. It is also due to the company's willingness to place its own finances at risk.

The space agency fronted Hamilton a portion of the cost of development work, with the understanding that NASA would recover all of the money if the SRS could not supply water.

“We talk about the station as a testbed for exploration, but we can also try to use the station as a testbed for procurement options,” Edeen says. “This was the beginning of the concept. What can we try differently than what we generally do when we build spaceflight hardware, which is usually cost-plus with some kind of fee structure?”

UTC Aerospace Systems tags up routinely with NASA 's Mission Control on SRS operations. “We have a very good working relationship,” says Samplatsky, who reports very few difficulties other than the need to replace life-limited components, which were included in the NASA agreement. “This has been a very good experience.”

Potentially, emerging commercial services like those offered by the SRS could follow NASA out of Earth orbit.

“We think it's absolutely applicable to deep-space human exploration,” Edeen says. “Ideally, if you get to the point where you have a lunar base or space station, you could end up with water, sewage, power and garbage companies that bill you every month to provide those services, based on how much you use, just like in your home. That is the extreme end for where these kinds of models could go.”