NASA Backs Commercialization of Human Spaceflight, Commercial Marketplace in LEO

NASA invests $11M among 13 U.S. companies to foster vibrant future commercial space economy.

NASA officials have chosen 13 U.S. companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit (LEO), including long-range opportunities for the International Space Station, seen here orbiting over the International Date Line on July 20, 2018. (Image courtesy NASA)

NASA officials in Washington continue to invest in private-public partnerships to help foster commercial space activity with the selection of 13 companies to study the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit (LEO), including long-range opportunities for the International Space Station  (ISS).

The studies are intended to assess the potential growth of a LEO economy and how best to stimulate private demand for commercial human spaceflight. The portfolio of selected studies will include specific industry concepts detailing business plans and viability for habitable platforms, whether using the space station or separate free-flying structures. The studies also will provide NASA with recommendations on the role of government and evolution of the ISS while transitioning U.S. human spaceflight activities in LEO to non-governmental enterprises.

“When the International Space Station was established, we could not have anticipated all the benefits it would provide. We’re excited to receive this input from the commercial market and aerospace experts to help shape a future thriving space economy in which companies contract with each other to conduct research and activities in low Earth orbit,” says Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The 13 companies NASA officials have chosen are:

Axiom Space LLC of Houston

Bigelow Aerospace LLC of Las Vegas

Blue Origin LLC of Kent, Washington

The Boeing Company of Houston

Deloitte Consulting of Manhattan Beach, California

KBRWyle of Houston

Lockheed Martin Corporation of Littleton, Colorado

McKinsey & Company Inc. of Washington, D.C.

NanoRacks LLC, of Webster, Texas

Northrop Grumman of Dulles, Virginia

Sierra Nevada Corporation of Louisville, Colorado

Space Adventures Inc., of Vienna, Virginia

Space Systems/Loral Inc. of Palo Alto, California

These studies are expected to result in unique concepts and analysis that will help NASA, the administration, and Congress develop a strategic approach to expanding opportunities for American industry, officials say.

NASA’s investment in a strong, growing U.S. space industry in LEO will enable the agency to focus on farther horizons as private companies continue providing cargo resupply  missions to LEO and take advantage of the ability to launch astronauts  from American soil.

“These awards are another step in NASA’s efforts to foster a broad spectrum of commercial activities in LEO where, in the future, NASA will be one of many customers. Application of the concepts and ideas offered through this opportunity will ensure the continuity of human spaceflight and facilitate a vibrant and competitive industrial base for continued U.S. leadership in space,” officials say.

NASA officials estimate the combined value of all awards – with the amount of each not to exceed $1 million and dependent on negotiations with selectees – are estimated at roughly $11 million. Final study reports will be delivered to NASA in December.

In May 2018, Johnson Space Center (JSC) officials released a NASA Research Announcement (NRA) for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Commercialization (Solicitation Number: 80JSC018LEOCOM), the purpose of which is to inform NASA's strategy for enabling the commercialization of human spaceflight in LEO and meet NASA's long-term LEO needs. The NRA solicited industry concepts, business plans, and viability for habitable platforms, whether using the ISS or free-flying, that would enable a commercial marketplace in LEO where NASA is one of many customers. It also sought industry input on the role of government and evolution of ISS in the roadmap to commercialization of LEO.

The solicitation was open to U.S. organizations, including industry, educational institutions, and nonprofit institutions, and provided for multiple four-month, fixed-priced contracts, up to $1M per award.

Courtney E. Howard  is editorial director and content strategist at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group. Contact her by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..