The private sector is calling on NASA to publicly communicate a specific plan soon if it wants to use commercial space stations to support human research efforts if the International Space Station (ISS) is retired in the mid-to-late 2020s.

Charles Miller, president of NexGen Space LLC and former NASA senior adviser for commercial space, said Tuesday at a Secure World Foundation (SWF) event in Washington that NASA has enduring research needs on human adaptation to space that will last beyond ISS. This includes research to figure out how humans can live and work in space indefinitely and how to protect humans against health problems caused by microgravity and radiation.

Photo: NASA.
Photo: NASA.

Miller said Wednesday in a phone conversation NASA and the President Barack Obama administration announced in early 2014 the agency would transition to commercial space stations after ISS retirement, but that NASA has not announced a plan to do so 19 months later. This, he said, is creating uncertainty among companies thinking of investing in commercial space stations as they need to decide how much to invest and how to raise capital. NASA is committed to ISS through at least 2024.

“The clock is ticking and the decisions need to be made,” Miller told Defense Daily, saying that NASA stating its plans in the next year or two will allow industry to invest and provide certainty for NASA that industry will be ready when the agency comes calling. “It’s a win-win for NASA to say, definitively, what its needs are.”

Bigelow Aerospace is developing an expandable space habitat that draws upon NASA’s TransHab habitat concept. Known as the B330, it will have 330 cubic meters of internal space. The craft will support zero-gravity research, including scientific missions and manufacturing processes. Beyond its industrial and scientific purposes, Bigelow envisions the B330 as a destination for space tourism and a craft for missions destined for the Moon and Mars.

Bigelow Director of D.C. Operations and Business Growth Mike Gold said Tuesday commercial providers need some sort of interaction and endorsement from NASA. He cited the civil space agency’s substantial support for commercial spaceflight, but he feared that the nation is setting itself up for a “human space station gap,” as the only space station in low earth orbit (LEO) when ISS retires will be Chinese.

“I think the least we could see is NASA acting as a smart customer for agreeing to fly its astronauts or purchasing volume aboard a commercial space station,” Gold said Tuesday at the SWF event.

Gold said he’s hearing from NASA that the private sector has to stand or fall by itself in LEO, inferring that industry can’t solely rely on the agency for a market. Gold said Bigelow can stand eventually, is willing to fail, and that Bigelow founder Robert Bigelow is investing his own money in a commercial space station, but that NASA needs to play some role as catalyst or at the least “priming the pump.”

Miller said in a Wednesday email that NASA has the ability to provide long-term guidance, and state a general need for a service, outside of the traditional request for information (RFI) or request for procurement (RFP) process. NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said Wednesday the agency would be unable to comment by press time Wednesday.