Are commercial space stations a fantasy?

Are commercial space stations a fantasy?

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I was recently asked what I thought about the fact that Europe and ESA were being surpassed by US-based commercial entities pursuing the development of space stations to take over from the International Space Station (ISS) once it’s retired. This question had me conflicted. On the one hand, I do believe that Europe could have done more over the last two decades to build out its human spaceflight infrastructure. I do, however, also believe that the feasibility of operating a commercial space station is not straightforward. Although the market does already exist with commercial payloads having been hosted aboard the ISS, the demand is, in my opinion, not yet large enough to cover the operating expenses of a single commercial station and certainly not several. The ISS has relied on contributions from five of the world’s largest economies to build and maintain it. Commercial activities aboard the ISS only serve to lessen the burden on the taxpayer. It could, however, be argued that commercial activities in orbit are only limited because the capacity for these activities aboard the ISS was limited. As a result, I endeavored to examine the question more closely.

At the moment, there is really only one case study to examine and that’s of course, the International Space Station. The new Tiangong space station could be interesting to examine, but we certainly won’t be getting a look at the operational costs of the Chinese station anytime soon. There have, of course, been other space stations over the decades, like Skylab and Mir, but I don’t believe either had much if any commercial application.

The ISS has space and facilities to support a crew of approximately seven astronauts and sports a number of dedicated research and science modules. The station can accommodate a handful of additional astronauts for short periods, with 13 being the largest crew in the station’s history. This additional short-term crew capacity has allowed for a small number of tourists to visit the station over its 25 years in orbit. So, how much does this all cost?

NASA currently spends around $3.1 billion a year on the station. $1.8 billion is spent on crew and cargo transportation to and from the station and around $1 billion specifically on station operations. The remainder is reserved for actual research that is conducted aboard the station. This is, however, only part of the equation. Russia funds the maintenance of its own section of the station which will cost the country $4.1 billion between 2016 and 2025, which is around $455 million a year. Additional contributions to the station also come from Europe, Japan, and Canada. However, Russia and the US are by far its largest contributors. Side note, I am using the US definition of one billion here as all the figures are in dollars. It still blows my mind that there is more than one definition of one billion, but that’s the world we live in.

When it comes to a commercial station, the research costs would be borne by the customer. Customer crew and cargo launch costs would also be on the customer, but the entity would need to shell out at least a percentage for the launch of its own crew and cargo to build, run and maintain the station. As a result, a minimum $1 billion a year price tag to maintain a commercial space station would likely be a fair baseline to consider. A station like the Vast Haven-1 would probably run significantly cheaper than that to operate, but since the station isn’t likely to be operational for more than a year, I really don’t think the model is worth considering in this analysis.

According to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, $2.4 trillion was spent globally on research and development in 2019. The United States and China accounted for almost half with $656 billion and $526 billion respectively. As space as a domain for research, manufacturing, and, unfortunately, war, becomes an increasingly prominent element of global research and development, it’s not hard to see how, at a very top level, the development of these space stations is being justified. However, it’s also difficult not to ignore the types of customers these stations are currently attracting.

In 2022, Axiom signed a deal with champagne producer Mumm to fly an aerospace-grade aluminum bottle of a specially blended champagne to and from the ISS. Days before that announcement, hotel chain Hilton signed an agreement with Voyager Space to be the official hotel partner for Starlab. In fairness to Voyager, the company has also signed memorandums of understanding with several Latin American countries to study the possibility of hosting payloads aboard Starlab, but that is far from a confirmed customer.

Although commercial access to the ISS is available, it’s limited in its scope. In fact, it wasn’t until 2019 that NASA started to relax its requirements to allow a broader application of commercial access to the station. This relaxation of the requirements to access the ISS resulted in projects like the first cookie baked in space which was an advertising effort from Double Tree or Adidas sending its Boost technology to the station to optimize footwear performance and comfort with the use of microgravity. Not exactly what you would call groundbreaking research. However, the lack of lucrative research being conducted in orbit may simply have been a capacity issue with only a very small sliver of station and astronaut resources allocated to these projects. If capacity drastically increases, it may be that pharmaceutical, material science, and other research in space really starts to become of interest.

An ESA report from 2001 gives us some indication of the costs involved in conducting research aboard the ISS. According to the report, access to one EDR (European Drawer Rack) drawer for three months with four crew hours with 130 kWh of power would set you back just over €1 million. If you want to throw in data link access via the TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System) that would come in at $100 per minute. You're obviously going to need to launch your payload and that's going to cost $22,000 per kilogram for pressurised up/downmass and $26,000 per kilogram for unpressurised up/downmass. The figures do at first sound lucrative, but when you’re trying to cover $1 billion in operating costs as a commercial space station, you’re going to need a staggering number of customers paying one to two million euros each.

The ability to support in-orbit manufacturing is another application many commercial space station proposals have touted. This application can be considered in two different ways. The first application is what I think many people envision when imaging in-orbit manufacturing and that’s producing a product that is then sent back to Earth and sold. However, in-orbit manufacturing could also include producing components for spacecraft that would otherwise be too large or too fragile to launch aboard even the largest proposed super-heavy launch vehicles. An example of this would be large antenna reflectors for increased satellite data transfer rates for both telecommunications and exploration missions. A 2017 MIT paper entitled Feasibility Analysis of Commercial In-Space Manufacturing Applications attempted to determine if this kind of application could be economically viable. According to the paper, a platform capable of producing multiple large antenna reflectors to service GEO satellites would cost around $3.5 billion and would need to capture the entire forecasted market to break even. This isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of its feasibility.

Reflector arrays weren’t the only case study the MIT paper examined, though. It also looked at the construction of large solar arrays for spacecraft. Here I discovered something quite interesting. According to the paper, solar array failures account for around half the total cost of spacecraft insurance claims with the average solar array anomaly claim being around $100 million. Here the paper envisions a station specialised in repairing, replacing, and upgrading arrays in addition to being capable of building arrays that would be impossible to launch from Earth. However, in its examination of the viability of this kind of in-orbit manufacturing it only considers building solar arrays from scratch. The mechanism for doing so would be that the station would produce large frames that flexible sheets of solar cells would be stretched over. The authors conclude that for smaller solar arrays it is more affordable to produce them on Earth. However, at a tipping point of 250 kW of total power, it becomes cheaper to produce these larger arrays in orbit.

So, there are applications for in-orbit manufacturing that could potentially be viable. However, all the examples I have examined call for a specialised solution and not a multi-use space station.

Another interesting application for a commercial space station that I came across during my research is satellite fueling and verification. I discovered the concept in a paper entitled Commercial Space Station Requirements which was presented at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Conference in 2000. The idea is that a satellite would be launched dry (without fuel) atop an orbital transfer vehicle which would then rendezvous and dock with the station. The satellite would then be fueled and its operational status verified. If a problem was discovered, the station could be used as a platform for its repair. Imagine how much easier something like troubleshooting the JUICE RIME antenna deployment hiccup would be if an astronaut could be sent out on a spacewalk to examine it. You could even refuel the OTV itself, giving an additional performance boost for higher orbits or Earth orbit escape trajectories. The OTV would then undock and deliver the satellite to its required orbit. There are a number of benefits to this application, including the fact that any launch capacity that would ordinarily have been reserved for fuel can be spent on the satellite and its payload. None of the current commercial space proposals mention this kind of fuel depot application, and it honestly feels like I’m missing something because it sounds compelling.

We also can’t forget about media and advertising. This could include everything from shooting movies in space to the cookies and sneaker publicity stunts we’ve already discussed. In January 1999, Boeing published a paper examining the economic viability of adding a commercial module to the ISS. Interestingly, the proposal didn't include any pressurised elements in an effort to reduce upfront development costs. As a result, the proposed applications were a little different. Boeing proposed three main market segments: remote sensing and geographic information, technology demonstration, and entertainment. It was believed that the module could generate between $150 and $250 million per year. However, much of that revenue was based on remote sensing applications. Today, that market has already been pretty well served, and I'm not sure there is a viable application that could be implemented in a commercial space station. In terms of technology demonstration, the paper identifies the testing of solar arrays as a key area to target. It would be interesting to see if this is still an underserved market. Finally, in terms of entertainment, Boeing predicted that it could account for approximately $10 million in revenue a year. Even adjusting for inflation, that’s really not going to move the needle much in terms of covering the operating costs of a commercial space station. However, remember that the module did not include a pressurised section limiting the applications for this vertical.

The numbers involved in the production of film and television are pretty staggering. In 2021, Disney alone spent $24.5 billion on programming across its various products. To put that number into context, NASA's budget for 2021 was $23.3 billion. As a result, securing even a small portion of that market could be lucrative. However, with CGI and practical effects having reached a point of complete believability, filming in space will be reserved for those insisting on realism despite the cost. This may account for one or two customers a year, but I doubt it will be a consistent big money earner.

Then there is, of course, tourism. Let me state upfront that this application isn’t necessarily just rich people playing astronaut for a week. Countries that would otherwise have no ability to send astronauts to space could now purchase a seat aboard a spacecraft to a commercial space station. Examples of this are already a reality with Saudi Arabia contracting Axiom to carry two of its astronauts to and from space. Australia may soon follow with the country paying for the Director of Space Technology at the Australian Space Agency Katherine Bennell-Pegg to attend EAS astronaut training. One would assume that after her training is complete, Australia would look to put Bennell-Pegg’s training to use in some fashion or another.

Axiom is currently charging around $55 million for a week-long stay aboard the ISS. The company plans to utilize the station to build out its own with the first module of the Axiom space station expected to be docked to the ISS in 2025. The station would eventually be undocked from the ISS to operate independently. If this station was outfitted specifically as a destination for astronauts and tourists alike, it could break even on $1 billion in operating costs with around 18 customers a year. Now, Axiom would, of course, have to factor in its own crew and cargo needs, but this figure does at first appear feasible. Could a company find 18 customers per year willing to fork out $55 million for a week-long stay in space? That’s very hard to say. The cost Axiom customers pay to visit the ISS is, in part, dependent on how much NASA charges Axiom for the privilege. As a result, once the company has its own independent station it may be able to reduce that cost increasing its potential customer pool. That change would obviously also increase the numbers of customers the company would have to secure every year just to break even. There is, however, another element to this equation.

If Axiom were using nothing but SpaceX Crew Dragon flights, getting 18 customers to and from orbit would account for around 6 dedicated flights a year assuming one of the four crew positions was filled by an Axiom crew member. That’s two thirds of all Crew Dragon flights launched since its maiden crewed flight in August 2020. And this would be to be every year to allow just one commercial station to break even under ideal conditions. To support four or five, global crewed launch capabilities would have to be drastically increased within the next ten years.

In 2023 alone, two commercial space stations have been announced. The US-based space station startup Vast announced last week that it would aim to launch its first commercial space station as soon as 2025. The station would be a free-flying module that would require a visiting Crew Dragon to operate with the spacecraft supplying the station with life support capabilities. The station, or rather the Crew Dragon, would be capable of sustaining a crew of four for up to 30 days at a time.

What I found interesting about this concept is that it reminded me a lot of the Man-Tendered Free Flyer (MTFF) space station concept that ESA pursued in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The MTFF was part of the agency's Columbus programme which at the time included three main infrastructure components: a module attached to the space station, an uncrewed polar orbiting space station, and the MTFF. After budget cuts in the early 1990s, the programme was reduced to just the ISS module. The free-flying station would have conducted much of its operations without a crew who would largely only be needed to switch out experiments. Most interestingly, the station would, in addition to being resupplied by the proposed Hermes spaceplane, have been capable of docking with the ISS to conduct resupply activities. Unlike Haven-1 (the proposed Vast space station), however, MTFF would have featured integrated life support systems. The other major difference is that Haven-1, which the company plans to launch aboard a Falcon 9 in 2025, will only be capable of supporting four missions in total. That sounds a lot like a PR stunt to me. This initial station will, however, be a stepping stone to the company’s long-term vision with the first module of a larger station planned to be launched aboard Starship by 2028.

Ordinarily, I would say a startup with a mission this ambitious would be unlikely to raise the necessary funding. Luckily, Vast has a billionaire founder and benefactor in Jeb McCaleb. According to Forbes, McCaleb is worth approximately $2.4 billion. The company states that its founder has committed to funding the company through the launch of Haven-1 and Vast-1 (the first crewed mission to the station).

The other space station proposal announced this year was the Airbus LOOP. This is currently the only European proposal. The station would feature three decks and would be launched in one piece aboard a super-heavy launcher. It would offer support for long-term missions and sport several amenities to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable stay for its crew. I do have a lot to say about this concept but like ArianeGroup with its Susie concept, Airbus seems to be uninterested in pursuing the development of LOOP at its own expense. So, it’s really not worth discussing further.

In 2021, NASA awarded three contracts totaling $415.6 million to support the development of three commercial space stations. Blue Origin received $130 million, Nanoracks $160 million, and Northrop Grumman $126.5 million. The awards were the first in a two-phase approach to ensuring the agency would have a seamless transition from the ISS to a commercial destination for its research.

Blue Origin is working with Sierra Space to develop Orbital Reef, a commercial space station that the pair refers to as a mixed-use space business park. The station would support a crew of 10 with applications including scientific research, the manufacture of unique products, media and advertising, and tourism. Contributions to the project will also be provided by Boeing, Rewire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. The complexity of this partnership is kind of wild. It would be one thing if it was a team that was receiving cost-plus contracts from NASA, but keeping all partners on board to develop and operate a commercial space station for potentially decades is going to be challenging, in my opinion. This station will also rely on the entrance to the market and successful operation of the Blue Origin New Glenn launch vehicle and the crewed version of the Sierra Space Dream Chaser vehicle. This adds even more complexity and uncertainty to the project.

If you need proof of how difficult it is to keep a complex team of industrial partners together for a commercial endeavour look no further than the Starlab proposal. When the concept was first announced in 2021, it was a partnership between Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin. However, Lockheed Martin appears to have since dropped out of the project with the company not listed on the initiative’s website as a partner. Luckily, the partnership managed to attract the interest of Airbus, who signed on to the project in January. Interestingly, a few months later, Airbus announced its LOOP station concept, which bears a striking resemblance to Starlab. Since there really isn’t much information available on Starlab, its similarities to LOOP do offer additional insight into the concept. If Starlab is of similar dimensions, it would mean that the station will require a super-heavy lift launch vehicle to carry it to orbit. Again, although this class of launch vehicle is on its way, it’s not clear when these vehicles will enter the market despite the best efforts of SpaceX and Blue Origin. The proposed customer base for the station appears to be comparable with Orbital Reef with a bit of everything from research and in-orbit manufacturing to space tourism.

The last of the NASA-sponsored station concepts is the proposal from Northrop Grumman. As far as I can see, the station does not yet have a name. In my opinion, the Northrop station concept is the most compelling of the three that received NASA funding. It relies on tech the company developed for its Cygnus spacecraft and utilises launch infrastructure already available today. The station offers a baseline for initial operations with options to expand with additional modules. The stated applications for the station are as broad as it is for the other stations and includes research, in-orbit manufacturing, tourism, and education and entertainment.

I have already briefly mentioned the Axiom station concept. This will start life as a single module which will be docked to the ISS. Axiom will utilize the module to expand the experience of its own crews which it is already launching to and from the ISS. The next two modules will expand crew accommodation and research and manufacturing facilities. The Axiom Power Thermal Module will be added next bringing with it environmental management, life support, storage, and payload capabilities. These four modules will be the baseline of the Axiom station. I also find this concept compelling. I think it’s smart to utilize the ISS to begin offering a service as soon as possible. This makes the whole commercial element of its operation significantly easier to stomach for investors.

In March a high-level independent advisory group convened by ESA recommended that the agency develop crewed launch capabilities. The group also recommended, among a number of other ambitious goals, that Europe begin developing crewed capabilities in orbit which included building a space station that is operated and crewed by Europe. I support the development of a European space station but I find it difficult to articulate why. As I have laid out, I don’t think there is an immediate business case for it and I think any application for research or manufacturing could be more affordably served aboard a robotic platform like Space Rider or Nyx. Research into the effect of microgravity and prolonged stretches in space on the human body and mind are notable exceptions. Building a European space station would, as a result, be an endeavor based on developing technology and operational experience for a future the agency envisions will at least partly take place in space. I do think this is a worthwhile pursuit and if you disagree let me put it another way.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Western and Central European countries spent $345 billion on military expenditure in 2022. Are we really saying that developing and operating a sovereign presence in orbit around Earth isn’t worth spending less than 1% of what we spend on our militaries? I understand that this is a controversial time to be making such an argument but it continues to baffle me how expenditure in space is continually questioned while spending on new ways to eradicate ourselves is not.

In terms of execution, I do like the philosophy behind Haven-1 or, more specifically, the MTFF. I think developing a self-sustaining single-module station that can be launched aboard a single Ariane 6 flight could be a compelling package for Europe’s first foray into operating independently in orbit around Earth. The station could be utilized on its own or act as a building block for a larger station with ISS-like capabilities.

A European space station is, however, step two. The first step is developing sovereign launch capabilities. Going back to the Commercial Space Station Requirements paper, the author explains that the success of any space station is dependent on the supply of low-cost space transportation for crew and cargo. A space station should not be dominated by its development costs but by its deployment and logistical costs,” explains the author. “The baseline for a space station is nothing more than an airtight compartment that is resupplied from the Earth.

Ariane 6 won’t get us low-cost cargo capabilities but it will at least get Europe back in the launch business. If Europe could then lean on the development of the retired Automated Transfer Vehicle and the European Service Module to develop this capability before the close of the decade, verification flights could bring European astronauts to the ISS before it is retired and deorbited. Once proven, the spacecraft could be used to ferry customers, which could include European astronauts, to and from commercial space stations. Since NASA is unlikely to leave itself without at least one destination in low Earth orbit, I do think the agency will, if necessary, backstop one or more of the commercial space station projects currently being proposed. Acting as a ferry between Earth and this new station, the European crew spacecraft could begin to generate income and build its operational reliability while Europe worked on developing its own space station.

It is for this reason that I think work on a crewed launch capability needs to start as soon as possible. Unfortunately, it won’t be. ESA is working towards a vote on this issue but there won’t be any decision made or budget allocated until the matter is voted on by member states at the next ministerial level meeting in late 2025. That means that we’re more than two and a half years away from the development and construction of a crewed launch capability being initiated by the agency. ESA will likely look to lay the groundwork with studies that will identify the project's requirements and potential contractors that could be called upon as soon as funds are made available. The wait we have ahead of us, though, does have me questioning the rigidity of the ESA framework and the glacial speeds at which it moves. I should note here though that I do think current ESA leadership under director general Josef Aschbacher is making some positive strides forward on this front. However, having to wait years until the next ministerial meeting really doesn’t allow the agency to react in a timely fashion. There should be a mechanism to allow for a snap vote at any time that would allow member states to allocate funding for an initiative in exceptional circumstances. And I do think these are exceptional circumstances.

A European space station would imply a huge shift in the way Europe approaches human spaceflight. Right now there's just a handful of European astronauts, far fewer than either China or America has. In terms of human spaceflight Europe is more comparable to Japan. Would a Japanese space station make sense? I don't think so.

Space stations are a few steps down the road from deciding to invest in human spaceflight. Europe hasn't, so far at least, made a strong commitment to doing that. Until they do, talk of ESA or the EU funding a station is surely premature.

A very interesting read!

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