A version of this article appears in the June 30 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
It has been three years since the International Space Station was completed and made available for full-time use, or as full-time as possible given the demands of keeping its crew and hardware functioning in the harsh environment above the atmosphere. Now the shakeout appears to be over, and ISS managers seem to have found their way to relatively efficient use of the unique facility. More important, business types are starting to report early evidence that the terrestrial economy can indeed move into low Earth orbit—on the station and elsewhere.
“I think we absolutely have a market,” says John Olson, who helped shape government attempts to push the off-planet economy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, before moving on to a job as vice president of space systems with Sierra Nevada. “We’re truly starting to see an explosive demand pull as well as a supply push.”
Sierra Nevada is in the running under’s commercial crew development seed-money effort to take astronauts to the ISS with its reusable Dream Chaser. At the Third ISS Research and Development Conference, sponsored by the American Astronautical Society in Chicago June 17-19, Olson said the company will complete the lifting-body vehicle on its own dime even if it doesn’t win a contract, in the belief that there is enough business beyond the space station to make money.
“The International Space Station is a strong driver,” he says. “It’s not the only driver, but it’s a very substantive one.”
Smaller companies already are making money on the ISS, led by NanoRacks, which pioneered commercial operations on the station with a suite of payload accommodations that paying customers can use on a turnkey basis. The startup’s prices are low enough that some high schools have taken advantage of them (AW&ST Oct. 3, 2011, p. 54).
Taking advantage of the free access NASA provides to the U.S. National Laboratories, NanoRacks has grown to a staff of almost 40, who spend their time designing equipment and working it through the NASA safety wickets at the. Despite its reliance on the government facility, the company says it operates like “any other business,” which is probably significant as others contemplate launching commercial-space enterprises.
“The whole premise is that we fund it ourselves,” says founder and CEO Jeff Manber, a commercial-space veteran who cut his teeth with MirCorp selling payload accommodation on the old Soviet space station. “If we treat it as any other business, a business not in space, you would say it’s ho-hum. We opened our doors, we self-invested, we have a landlord, but because it’s in space, very often you think you can’t do anything unless you get prefunded by the government. We chose not to do that. We chose to treat this just like any other business.”
Manber says business is good. The company recently delivered a $5 million external payload platform to NASA for preflight checkout (AW&ST June 23, p. 31), and one of its scientists —Carl Carruthers, Jr.—was honored at the ISS conference for finding a way to use off-the-shelf laboratory gear to prepare protein crystal growth experiments for the station. NanoRacks, which started with simple power-and-data racks mounted inside the ISS, has taken advantage of the airlock, robotic arm and “front porch” attached to Japan’s Kibo module to move outside.
In addition to its pointable NanoRacks External Platform, the company has installed a dispenser on the Kibo porch that launched 28 Earth-observation “Dove” cubesats for PlanetLabs (AW&ST Jan. 13, p. 18). Like Manber, the San Francisco startup’s idealistic founders (see photo) see space, and access to it, as a useful commodity rather than an end to itself. After launching one “flock” of Doves from the ISS (plus two more on anAntares), NanoRacks used a Russian Dnepr on June 19 to orbit another 11 Doves.
For Planet Labs, which draws on the same technology base as the fast-moving smartphone industry, spacecraft technology is as much of a commodity as the view from space itself. Mike Safyan, the company’s senior compliance and operations engineer, says a Dove will become obsolete if it has to wait six months for launch, because Silicon Valley will have upgraded the cameras and other hardware it uses.
“One of the things we like to do is use space as an extension of our laboratory, so it’s not really to get the satellite perfect, work six years on it and launch it,” Safyan says. “It’s more ‘here’s the best thing we have today. Let’s launch it and see what happens.’”
That normalization of the space business was reflected again and again at the ISS conference, where commercial activities were a big part of the discussion.
“I think there is a tipping point,” says Erika Wagner of Blue Origin. “I think the accessibility of software, miniaturized hardware, the availability of materials [are] really making a big difference. The availability of private capital in Blue’s case certainly is making a huge difference in the ability to move forward, consistently and independently. I think there is something new happening here.”