The commercialization of space is well underway. Now, NASA has issued a call for proposals from private companies that hope to develop their own space stations.
The space agency put out a draft solicitation on October 3. It calls on private companies to take part in the Commercial Destination Development in Low Earth Orbit Free Flyer program. The initiative is part of NASA’s broader Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) effort.
The phrase “free flyer” pertains to commercial space stations separate from the ISS. The goal of the program is “to develop and demonstrate commercial destination technologies and markets in LEO,” the draft solicitation states. The call is part of a larger NextSTEP program. Announced in June, the initiative wants private entities to contribute modules to the International Space Station. However, NASA also hopes to look beyond the ISS regarding its partnership with the private sphere.
“NASA seeks to potentially transition away from full reliance on the ISS and cost-effectively meet its long-term needs in LEO by purchasing services from commercially owned and operated destination(s) that offer a broad portfolio of products and services to both the commercial market and NASA,” the proposal continues.
The space agency expects to award one or more companies a spot in the program. It will do this through “a portfolio-based decision” to see which firms might be a good fit for both the free flyer program and the ISS port initiative. Furthermore, the selected companies might receive “Future Task Orders.”
NASA had hoped to entice companies with the power of the purse. However, those holding the strings, the Senate Appropriations Committee, don’t seem to see much value in the program. In its 2020 budget proposal, NASA asked Congress for $150 million for its low Earth orbit commercialization initiative. The Senate committee decided to allocate just $15 million for such efforts.
The lack of government funding and appreciation spurred an urgent call to action from former NASA chief Charles Bolden at the annual meeting of the National Academy of Engineering on October 7. As the former head of NASA from 2009 to 2017, Bolden’s sense of urgency comes from what he sees as the rapid decline of the ISS. He estimates that the aging space station has “four to eight years” left. Other projections indicate that the ISS can operate for at least another decade and possibly into the 2030s.
Bolden’s four to eight-year estimate was perhaps an effort to embolden private entities to step in. “Somebody’s got to come up with a business case that helps people understand that there is value in going into low Earth orbit,” he said. For example, pharmaceutical and material development research in microgravity is starting to take off. Bolden seeks to further ignite the capitalist spirit of companies in those industries.
“For all of you conservatives here who believe in the free market, you’ve got an opportunity,” he said. “Jump off the International Space Station and build the low Earth orbit infrastructure that we have got to have if we’re going to successfully send humans back to the moon and on to Mars.”