On December 10-11, 2014, NASA held a workshop on the commercialization of low Earth orbit. The goal of the workshop was to start a dialog about creating a thriving commercial marketplace in LEO over the next decade, enabled by human spaceflight. Historically, NASA has been both the primary supplier and consumer of human spaceflight capabilities and services in LEO. However, NASA has begun to change this historical model by purchasing cargo transportation services commercially and is facilitating the development of commercial crew transportation and rescue capabilities. By the end of 2017, NASA plans to purchase both crew and cargo delivery services to the ISS from commercial suppliers. By the 2020’s, near the planned end of the life of the ISS, NASA’s intention is to transition LEO from being government-led to significantly more private sector involvement (both supply and demand side). In this scenario, both research requirements and investigations are private sector need driven, and the supply-side transportation and microgravity capabilities are private sector provided.
To date, NASA has worked on establishing a private sector transportation capability for both cargo and crew. Also, NASA, through CASIS and other efforts, has offered the ISS as venue for the private sector to explore the benefits of space-based research for terrestrial companies. In the future, it will be critical for a commercial market for microgravity capabilities be developed by the private sector. Creating this marketplace will require the efforts of both government and industry. Through the information and ideas gathered and developed during this workshop, NASA intends to formulate a new strategy – including new initiatives and projects – designed to encourage the emergence of this commercial marketplace to the maximum extent possible.
Topics covered included enabling policy statements and incentives; enabling mission goals; promising commercial markets in LEO; commercial operation of ISS systems; promising microgravity R&D investment areas of high probable return to the nation; barriers to commercialization of LEO.
Some key questions that were discussed included:
- What regulation changes and investment incentives would encourage commercial research and application activities in LEO?
- What kind of intellectual property rights protections are required to engage private capital for research on ISS?
- What are the most promising near-term market opportunities in LEO and how can they better be enabled using the ISS? What are the most promising long-term applications of LEO that the ISS program can enable?
- Is there a business case outside the government for multiple LEO platforms that are specialized for individual markets (tourism, micro-gravity research/production, free-flying human tended Earth observing platform, etc.)?
- What can the government do to encourage LEO supply providers to seek non-NASA customers for their services or capabilities?
- Is there an overlap between LEO commercial platform capabilities and NASA’s exploration goals?
A summary of the workshop will be posted by NASA in January along with possible future activities.