On August 27 2020 I am scheduled to attend the annual European Astrobiology Network Association Conference. Yet on the same day, NASA is hosting the annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference. Because it is still ‘during the corona’ in the United States and in Europe both conferences have been moved online so I can’t help signing up for the NASA event too. Partly because I get carried away by the fact that I can, and partly because many of its central sessions concern the Low-Earth Orbit Economy and I’d really like to know what that is. As I sign up for NASA’s conference, I realize they coincide time wise. They also coincide with my kids coming home from school and kindergarten but Nick will deal with that. In the days leading up to the conferences I am quite excited and imagine how I’ll sit in my room and attend two conferences at the same time while Nick takes care of the kids.
That’s not how things turn out. My daughter starts coughing the night before the conferences and has a sore throat when she wakes up in the morning. I have to go and get her tested for corona. Because the weather has taken a turn and everyone is coughing and needs to get tested, I can’t get her an appointment in town and we have to drive to another city. I make it back half an hour after the astrobiology conference has started. In the meantime, my son and Nick has come home from kindergarten and work. My son is crying and throwing a tantrum. He takes it out on my daughter. She starts crying. Nick has to go shopping for the evening meal. I need to sign in to my conference and the link is dead. I try to ignore everything and press on: I set up two different computers and manage to sign in to both conferences. Then I get my notebook out. Outside my door, the kids are crying and raging. I give up. When finally Nick is back, I go into my room and lock the door.
While the kids fight and throw themselves against my door in an attempt to break it down, I struggle to understand what is going on at the astrobiology conference. Something about ‘perchlorate rich brines at subzero temperatures’. I get out my IPad as well as the two computers and start looking up words I do not understand. I am out of my depth in so many ways. Because I have claimed both computers and the IPad too we have no implements left with which to pacify the hungry kids while Nick cooks dinner. So I surrender my Ipad to the kids and go hang in the kitchen. ‘I don’t understand anything’ I complain to Nick’s back. I don’t get any sympathy from him. ‘I’m not feeling well’, I continue. Which is true. I’m sneezing, coughing, and my skin is all sore. ‘Yes, me neither’ he says. We both got tested two days ago so at least we know it’s not corona. ‘Go do your conferences’, he adds, ‘I’ve got beer and crisps and we can do that thing you academic are infamous for doing at conferences.’ I know we won’t because we are both too sickly, but the thought is nice. So I go do my thing. I turn off the sound from the astrobiology conference. It’s beyond me anyway. For now I tune into the International Space Station conference about the low-Earth orbit economy. I am immediately hooked. This is what I learn:
The International Space Station have limited time left as a functioning space station. And while it is a declared goal of the United States to have a continued presence in low-Earth Orbit (LEO) they also don’t want to build another space station. In 2017 NASA therefore approved the NASA Transition Authorization Act (NASA 2017) with the key aim of developing “a plan to transition in a step-wise approach form the current regime that relies heavily on NASA sponsorship to a regime where NASA could be one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit non-governmental human space flight enterprise”(NASA 2018: 4). NASA plans to achieve this by stimulating and promoting ‘the commercialization of LEO’ or ‘the industrialization of space’. What NASA more specifically wants, is to use part of their ‘crew time’ on the ISS to make it possible for private companies to gain experience with space flight, research and development in ‘micro gravity’, including the planning of space missions and maintenance of a space station. All with the ultimate aim of encouraging private companies to build space stations in lower-Earth orbit so ultimately NASA might be the costumer and not the host, so to speak.
For NASA obviously, the International Space Station is important because it is a place that provides a ‘micro-gravity’ laboratory for exploring things related to the human presence in space: How does micro-gravity affect the human body? How does living in space affect the human psyche? How might one develop the best habitation modules and technical equipment to sustain a human presence in space? For industry I learn, lower-Earth orbit is attractive because they provide a much coveted commodity: micro-gravity. These are examples of what you can do in a microgravity environment and not on Earth: make really, really thin artificial retinas for the human eyeball; explore nanotechonology for use in nanomedicine; grow ‘single crystals’ such as silicon used in electronics and LEDs which an exceptional degree of regularity in the molecular grid (which determine the quality); explore ‘mixology’ i.e. the science of how fluids interact, because it is easier to understand the basic mechanisms when you don’t have gravity interfering which the molecular interaction; explore whether stem-cells, and thus artificially grown tissue, grow faster when you remove gravity as a variable.
The conference I am attending is both a venue for laying out the strategy for the growth of this LEO Economy and the occasion to discuss with involved industry partners how this strategy is working. The private sector has some hesitations. It’s the old dichotomies: science versus commerce, bureaucracy versus agility, better-and-safer versus cheaper-and-safe-enough but they are played out in a slightly new way.
– Does the Manager of the ISS Research Integration Office at NASA feel the push to commercialization is compromising the science being done at the Space Station? – No, the fact that SpaceX is now sending up astronauts to the ISS from the Kennedy Space Port with Boeing soon following suit means a projected doubling of US astronaut presence on the ISS. This will essentially double research time since ‘the most restrained resource to date has been crew time’.
– Does the CEOs feel government long-term planning and charting out directions creates a hindrance to commercial agility? – No, ‘the commercial leverage that will emerge in an environment that is predictable five, ten years in advance is so powerful in terms of leveraging capital’. Government need simply ‘lay out a predictable plan and capital will follow. That predictability is so powerful in terms of leveraging capital.’ So are there any concerns? Well, there’s China which poses a serious case of subsidized competition.