China’s medium-size space station for the 2020’s is depicted in this artwork.
Credit: CNSA

Worth a read: Written Remarks before the National Space Council on February 21, 2018 by Jeffrey Manber. CEO, NanoRacks:

For 30 years, I have worked to make space ‘just another place to do business.’ I was inspired, Secretary Ross, by one of your predecessors, Ronald Reagan’s Commerce Secretary Malcom Baldridge.He passionately believed, as do I, that we can, and we should, unleash the imagination of the American private sector as part of our national space exploration efforts. This vision of American-style business in space has motivated me throughout a career thathas focused on commercial use of space stations.

I started my company, NanoRacks, 8 years ago. We were the first company to own and market our own research hardware on the International Space Station. The first to sell space station services. The first to commercially deploy small satellites. As of today, we have launched over 600 payloads to ISS, with over 200 satellites deployed, from customers in over 30 countries. Our customers range from NASA and the US Government, to a new generation of small satellite operators to hundreds of schools from all across America, Israel, Germany, China, and many more. We deployed the first Lithuanian satellites from the ISS, which catalyzed the students behind this project to start their own company, now backed by ESA funding. We keep Spire’s constellation of global ship tracking CubeSats replenished in orbit. We’ve launched over 300 student experiments with our educational partner, DreamUp – and, Mr. Vice President, we’re proud to have launched four high school experiments from Crown Point and Highland, Indiana.

All of our customers are commercial. From schools doing bake sales to the USG procuring our services, we’re a normal business, which justhappens to be onboard the International Space Station.

NanoRacks Chief Executive Officer, Jeffrey Manber (right) signs contract to fly Chinese experiment onboard the International Space Station.
Credit: BIT

Observations

Now, please allow me several observations:

  • First, kudos to the Administration for beginning the debate today on the transition from ISS to the era of private space stations. The debate has been skewed in headlines, but I believe you are raising the correct questions: How can NASA most effectively leverage the taxpayer investment in ISS? Can commercial industry safely and cost-effectively operate the ISS and other commercial platforms? It’s not a black and white end to US government support of ISS, it’s about the role of direct and indirect NASA support and how the government will no longer serve as a landlord, but instead as a tenant.
  • Next, NASA today is supportive of commercial space companies and private initiatives, but there are ways we can improve. Above all else, imaginative non-solicited ideas from the private sector to NASA should not have to be competed! That defeats the motivation, does it not? However, more and more NASA’s key personnel are leading the transition to a more commercial way of doing business. Two of the key leaders are Jason Crusan with NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems Directorate – leading the NextSTEPs program, and Marybeth Edeen, one of our strongest advocates for greater private sector involvement in the public-private partnerships, out of the International Space Station Program Office.
  • Third, commercial space must be, and is more than, simply taking government seed-money. NASA, the Department of Defense and the Air Force in particular, should begin a serious analysisfor better leveraging the innovative, fast-paced, and cost-friendly private sector capabilities.
  • Fourth, and very importantly, as we look overseas, others are emulating America’s drive to a space-based marketplace in low-earth orbit. Others, including China. The United States cannot simply ignore China’s commercial space ambitions. China is quietly developing a robust commercial space industry. I say quietly because Americans are blinded by our own regulations from participation. So we barely see what is happening.

 

Mary Murphy, NanoRacks senior Internal Payloads Manager (and the manager of the Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) project) with Chinese space research team. The BIT NanoLab was officially checked out and handed over for launch at the Space Life Science Lab (SLSL) in Cape Canaveral Florida. This handover occurred on the morning of May 31, 2017, prior to the June 3 SpaceX CRS-11 Dragon supply ship launch.
Credit: NanoRacks

 

China

Large Chinese companies are creating entrepreneurial launch efforts, while young Chinese engineers are raising funds all the way from Silicon Valley to Hong Kong. On a governmental level, the European Space Agency has astronauts training to visit the planned Chinese space station. But the United States is barred. There are so many regulations, not to mention our mindset, barring business in space with Chinese companies and for cooperating between our civil space programs. NanoRacks and others are limited what we can sell in this marketplace.

Avoiding this emerging marketplace, albeit due to justified concerns over technology transfer and other legitimate challenges, is not the American global leadership that we strive to achieve.

For two years I worked to bring a Chinese university experiment to the space station as a customer of NanoRacks. Why? I want us “in the room” of this new commercial marketplace. With Administration and Congressional concurrence, I was able to enter into a commercial contract with the Beijing Institute of Technology for a fascinating DNA mutation experiment. The project met the concerns of many in Congress opposed to working with China in space. We ensured no technology transfer, that the results would be published in Western journals, and that there was no direct connection to the People’s Liberation Army. It was a commercial program, and my company was paid.

Now, while my time today is brief, I want to emphasize the need for reforms allowing American companies to be leaders in this billion dollar market. Let’s start fresh, negotiate a stern but fair agreement with China, and allow U.S. businesses to do what we do best: innovate and compete better than anyone else.

Mr. Vice President, and the entire Space Council, I am thrilled that the Administration is turning a focus on commercial space and American leadership. We’re at the tipping point of figuring out just how NASA will transition low-Earth orbit into commercial hands, and I, along with NanoRacks, look forward to being a leader in this seamless handover. We will continue to inspire the next generation of space explorers, so that one day soon, those students in Crown Point, Indiana will be presenting to the nextSpace Council discussing how the United States commercial lunar base is just another place to do business.

  • Jeffrey Manber

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