An Exciting Time for International Space
November 22, 2019
This week, hundreds of space experts are in Houston for the annual SpaceCom conference, including myself. I had the honor to join a panel on international commercial space opportunities and talked about how some of the most promising new space markets have deep international ties and how governments are playing a big part in this area as both funders and supporters of international commercial space activity.
It is an incredible time in the space economy. Right now, two entirely new space markets are becoming reality. About 20,000 miles overhead, Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle, or MEV, is headed to meet a retired communications satellite and bring it a new lease on life. This is the beginning of a new international space market in satellite servicing, with a U.S. company’s MEV, recently launched on a Russian rocket, bringing back to life a satellite that served the European market.
Back on Earth and about 800 miles from me here in Houston (Texas is big…), Virgin Galactic will soon fly commercial passengers to space from New Mexico. This is another new market – one that shares deep international ties with a U.S. company taking customers from around the world to space.
Governments also play an important role in this activity. We can’t talk about the opportunities for international space efforts without mentioning the International Space Station (ISS) and the potential for international collaboration with NASA’s Lunar Gateway. The ISS is regularly nominated for the Noble Peace Prize and, considering its history, there’s no surprise why. The space station has been continuously occupied since 2000 – meaning that, for every second of every day since 2000, we have had humans living in space (239 astronauts from 19 countries)!
Current authorization for ISS only extends to 2024, which means NASA may need to begin planning to deorbit this tens of billions of dollars engineering marvel. This not only puts important exploration research and commercialization activity at risk, but could leave the U.S. in a diplomatic and soft power bind. Without the ISS, other countries are approaching our global partners and asking if they would like to join a non-US led station post-2024. Fortunately, U.S. policy makers – with the backing of AIA and industry – are working to extend the ISS. A Senate committee recently passed a bill that would extend the ISS to 2030. Now the full Senate and House need to take action to pass this bill and send it to the President’s desk.
NASA also has the opportunity to build off of the incredible international benefits of the ISS with the Artemis lunar program. The time is ripe for NASA to solidify formal commitments from international partners and extend the ISS framework to Gateway. Japan, Canada, Australia, and Europe have expressed interest in cooperation, and NASA should work to turn this interest into specific contributions before the end of next year. Coupled with ISS extension, this will lock down the US’s international space leadership position through the 2020s – and set the stage for US-led international human exploration to Mars.
So yes, this is an exciting time for international space activity. And if we take the right steps here in the U.S. and internationally, that excitement – and the innovations and achievements that come with it – will continue for years to come.