AIAA ASCEND: Experts urge Biden administration to help commercialize LEO

Government funding in low-Earth orbit could aid deep space exploration

Now that President-elect Joe Biden has assembled his NASA transition team, a handful of space industry officials have a message for them: Help us increase commercial activity in low-Earth orbit.

During a debate-style discussion on “What is the Path to LEO Commercialization by 2025?” moderator Mary Lynne Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration asked each panelist what advice they would give the incoming administration about how to foster a commercial marketplace in low-Earth orbit.

Each panelist agreed that NASA should not build or operate another space station after the International Space Station is retired, but should instead act as an anchor tenant for future privately owned stations or outposts by pledging to rent space aboard them for research and other purposes.

“It needs to be a long-term, sustained level of investment and making some smart decisions and choices about how that money is spent,” said Tom Shelley, president of Space Adventures, a Virginia space tourism company.

Federal funding for the U.S. portion of the International Space Station is scheduled to end after 2024, and although Congress is considering legislation to extend that to at least 2028, NASA wants to transition to a model in which the agency is one of many customers for multiple privately owned outposts in LEO.

Biden has not publicly discussed his plans for NASA, but the Democratic Party platform released in July cites support for NASA “to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars.” Andrew Rush, chief operating officer of Redwire, said those goals are “synergistic” with increasing commercial activity in LEO.

“The more infrastructure we have in LEO, the easier it is to do science in cislunar space, the easier it is to explore the moon and Mars,” Rush said. “The less infrastructure we have, the harder it will be to do those things.”

But while building out their LEO ventures, companies would have to be careful not to base their entire business case around NASA or other government customers, lest these commercial facilities become “in essence, markets defined by the government,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, whose Bishop Airlock module is scheduled for launch to ISS in December. “I really worry about that.”

Shelley noted space tourism is one promising market that doesn’t rely on government customers. The Space Adventures firm he leads announced in February that it will launch four private citizens aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule for a five-day orbital trip in late 2021.

“When you look at it from a macro perspective as a whole, look who’s coming in and who’s buying services in low-Earth orbit,” Shelley said. “The future is bright, and it’s getting better and better.”

AIAA ASCEND: Experts urge Biden administration to help commercialize LEO