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NASA Businesses Communications Government ISS Space

NASA 'Moving On' From Low-Earth Orbit (arstechnica.com) 118

An anonymous reader writes: NASA has issued a warning to private space companies: the agency is moving on from its focus on low-Earth orbit. William Gerstenmaier, chief of human spaceflight, said, "We're going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can. Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA's vision is we're trying to move out." This leaves a void for the private companies building rockets to supply the ISS. "NASA says it would like to see the private space industry "take over" low-Earth orbit, although it acknowledges that any successor space station or orbiting module will be far smaller than the $140 billion space station, a collaboration between 15 countries. The message from NASA to the US industry is simple: we're serious about the commercialization of low-Earth orbit, we have this marvelous facility available with unique capabilities, and we want you to use the heck out of it."
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NASA 'Moving On' From Low-Earth Orbit

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  • by Anonymous Coward
    There really is not much reason for private industry to go to LEO unless it's to support NASA. If NASA vacates, then the only real reason to go there goes along with it. Some will espouse about knowledge, scientific research, exploration, blah blah blah. There's no money to be made there so private industry will not be interested, unless it on the whims of people like Musk or Bezos.
    • There's no money to be made

      and little scientific knowledge to be gained.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      There really is not much reason for private industry to go to LEO unless it's to support NASA.

      Also zero gravity ball bearings, art, biology research in 30 categories, preparing to exploit asteroids, crystal growth, cosmic rays, satellite deployment, communications research, nanotechnology, metallurgy, geology, and advertising.
      • by fisted ( 2295862 )

        I am Slashdot.

        Sorry to hear it.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        "Also zero gravity ball bearings"

        This particular pile of dung has been repeated since the 1960s. It made no sense then, it makes no sense today. We are already able to make atomically perfect spheres right here on Earth. Oops, so sorry, technology got better and we don't need your antique space dreams.

        "art"

        You're shitting me?

        "biology research in 30 categories"

        See above. Technology gets better, we don't need your space fantasies anymore.

        " preparing to exploit asteroids"

        Beyond delusional.

        "crystal growth"

        May I

      • When I first read the FA, my first thought was that LEO and a few probes is all that LEO is all they seem to do now!
    • by Rei ( 128717 )

      There's tons of reasons for private industry to go to LEO: satellite launches. Now, as for ISS.... that's a bigger question. If it were low cost to free I imagine Bigelow might have interest in it as a space hotel module; it has a lot of hardware that could be useful even if it's not as roomy as his ultimate plans call for. But Bigelow is still waiting on crewed Dragon and Falcon Heavy. They are planning to use ISS shortly to test a prototype of one of their inflatable modules. So maybe there's someone w

      • by tsotha ( 720379 )

        If nobody is interested and NASA really is keen on abandoning it, I'd hope that they'd launch a final mission to boost it into a high orbit before doing so so that it doesn't reenter any time soon.

        I'd like to see them actually install the VASIMR module. That would keep it in LEO with minimal effort.

      • If nobody is interested and NASA really is keen on abandoning it, I'd hope that they'd launch a final mission to boost it into a high orbit before doing so so that it doesn't reenter any time soon. There's a lot of good hardware up there.

        Unfortunately the seals between modules are deteriorating, it won't stay pressurized for much longer, and once depressurized, I am not sure how much of the technology will be useful.

        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          Do you have a source on this that I could read?

          • I know I heard this somewhere, but now I can't find anything about it. Supposedly, the limiting factor on the ISS for longevity is the seals between the modules. When those start deteriorating, the station is pretty much over as they can't be replaced in space without depressurizing that section of the station to replace the o-rings.

            Now I can't find where I read about this, I seem to remember it being around the conversation about extending the lifetime past the Russian's selected deadline.

            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              I searched and didn't find anything talking about them currently degrading.

              Clearly ISS's lifespan isn't unlimited. But they're also clearly not in "constant desperate patch" mode like Mir was in near the end of its days. There seems to still be plenty of life left in it. At the very least it could be cannibalized - I mean, to pick one example among thousands, 110kW of solar panels in LEO is no trivial thing.

              ISS really isn't a bad station. It's no luxury hotel but it's a pretty capable facility - all que

      • by Megane ( 129182 )
        If ISS ever gets VASIMR [wikipedia.org] installed, it shouldn't need boost missions.
    • I read it as NASA not getting out of the ISS altogether - they're getting out of doing the supply stuff themselves. They want to pass that business along to private, and spend their time doing actual research and exploration.

      • I read it as NASA not getting out of the ISS altogether - they're getting out of doing the supply stuff themselves.

        So, you didn't read it? That's fine, but lol

        My advice is to read it as what it says; they're getting out of the ISS itself when the time comes, and they're not going to replace it or do anything else like it in LEO. That science has already been done. There are lots of experiments that individual groups of academics would like to see done, but the important science that benefits from LEO is minimal and has been done already. An important experiment can also be sent up in a rocket and run like a satellite. L

      • When did NASA get back into the supply stuff? Since the shuttle was put out to pasture they've been dependant on other countries (and now private companies) to supply the ISS and on Russia to ferry people. Having NASA saying that they are getting out of the supply stuff is like the telephone companies saying they are getting out of the rotary phone business.

        • by dryeo ( 100693 )

          Having NASA saying that they are getting out of the supply stuff is like the telephone companies saying they are getting out of the rotary phone business.

          Well considering that the telephone company stays in the rotary phone business so they can add a $3 a month touch dial surcharge, does that mean that NASA is going to keep in the supply stuff forever so they skim money off?

          • In Ontario you haven't been able to get a rotary phone line for ages. They only let you keep it and if you move you have to give up the line and move to touch tone. In fact they used to charge you an extra $3 a month for the touch tone line. Don't know if that's true any more since I got rid of my land line a few years ago.

            • by dryeo ( 100693 )

              To be honest, it's the same in BC, though that charge was there for way too long.

  • What for? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by JaredOfEuropa ( 526365 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @02:19PM (#51074417) Journal
    It's a nice idea: commercial space exploration. But what are commercial, for-profit companies supposed to do in LEO? Space tourism, maybe some very specific R&D that requires freefall, but other than that?
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Um, communications infrastructure?

      Radio astronomy?

      Surveillance?

      It's ALREADY a multi-billion dollar industry.

    • To quote someone at some point, "It's not about what we can think of now, but what someone down the line will think up of later." But that aside, I can think of a few, though I can't specifically speak about the marketability of these.

      LEO could be a staging point or a point of operation for energy production. Solar panels in space do collect more energy than those on Earth. The caveat being transmission from LEO or higher to ground.

      Communications and all that fun jazz come to mind as well. While LEO may

      • Re:What for? (Score:5, Informative)

        by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @02:57PM (#51074767)

        collect more energy than those on Earth

        They collect (1366/1006)*(24/6) times more energy (5.46x). To be economically viable, hey can't be more than 5.46x more than ground based systems that are currently under $1/watt, so you have to put a system in place for about $4-5wp. Good luck.

        • Re:What for? (Score:5, Interesting)

          by Rei ( 128717 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @03:11PM (#51074893) Homepage

          Sun-tracking systems can get higher capacity factors than 25%, you're being pessimistic with your earth figures and optimistic with your space figures ;)

          • you're being pessimistic with your earth figures and optimistic with your space figures

            Yes I was being conservative and it still shows that space solar is not economically competitive with ground based.

            That aside, Sun-tracking systems are not economically competitive with fixed mounts. Theoretical maximum increase by 41% has to be less expensive than adding 41% more panels. Not even close.

            • The added bonus with 2-axis tracking systems is that you can use concentrated photovoltaics. You use a combination of cheap fresnel lenses with extremely efficient cells. Those cells are very expensive per m2, but you only need a few mm2 because of the 500x concentration factor. And it can become cost-effective in sunny places such as Arizona, Spain and Israel.
              http://www.soitec.com/en/techn... [soitec.com]

            • With accurate tracking systems and concentrated photovoltaics, you're talking about a factor 500 reduction in cell size:
              http://www.soitec.com/en/techn... [soitec.com]

            • by Rei ( 128717 )

              Sun tracking is dominant in commercial solar power. First off, photovoltaics aren't dominant in commercial solar power, solar thermal is, wherein tracking is essential. But even on commercial PV plants, tracking is used more often than not.

              For homeowners, no, sun tracking is rarely economical.

        • Space based power DOES have a use. The first should be about supplying power to the DOD along with power to disaster areas. In FOB in Afghanistan, it cost America $200-400 PER GALLON of DIESEL. Most of that went to providing electricity. If we can beam down energy to a relatively small receptor , then the DOD will gladly buy the energy. Likewise, if a drone can be put at say 10-60k feet, receive power and then dish it out to various area with small receptors ( I.e. dish TV size ) , then this will work for
      • Energy production should not take place in LEO -- reason being is that you move too fast in LEO to send energy anywhere consistently. if you were going to put say solar collectors in space you need to go all the way up to geo sync orbit so that you can hit a ground station receiver all the time.

      • Re:What for? (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Nidi62 ( 1525137 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @03:48PM (#51075267)
        What about using LEO as a jumping off/assembly point? Obviously a lot of companies are interested in exploiting possible resources in space. By using a structure in LEO, couldn't you maximize efficiency by pre-launching supplies and materials in a way that maximizes payloads and reduces the number of launches necessary? Take the ISS and modify it to store consumables such as food, water, and fuel, and then send up any vehicles in stages for assembly and stocking in orbit. A small crew stationed on the ISS can assemble everything, then either use them to man the mission or send up a final flight with crew and any last minute cargo (experiments, low stock items or perishables, any needed spare parts, etc). Obviously I am not well versed on the economy of space launches, but it stands to reason that there a point where the ratio between cost and mass is most efficient, and this would allow you to harness that efficiency.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          This would be a excellent idea, but thanks to the CLINTON administration wanting to play nice with the Russians, we put ISS in the wrong orbit. The space station is in a steeply inclined orbit because that was the price of partnering with the Russians and their R7 boosters out of baikonur cosmodrome.

    • They're not talking about commercial exploration they're talking about commercial exploitation of the ISS, and the construction of anything similar to replace it.

      From the article:

      "We’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, last week. “Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA’s vision is we’re trying to move out."

      So it isn't really that they have some sort of plan that there is some important activity for commercial companies. That is clearly up to them to figure out. NASA is being supportive and communicative, and that is all. I think the real point is that there a bunch of companies clamoring for increased commercial access, and NASA is h

    • That's inherently an economics question.

      We have to find a cheaper way to get into space--"cheaper" meaning "less human labor". In the beginning of time, hunter-gatherers spent 20 hours per person per week just acquiring food; now, 2% of the US population is agricultural workers, half our products are non-food, half our food gets exported, and we spend 27 labor-hours per person per YEAR producing food. The rest of the time? We build space ships and smart phones.

      People don't like labor theories of valu

    • by modi123 ( 750470 )

      Prisons.. Supermax space prisons sound like a hoot.

      Hollywood reenactment tours of Airplane 2...

      • Prisons.. Supermax space prisons sound like a hoot.

        Yeah, we could put our criminally insane evil genius supervillans there. What could possibly go wrong?

  • by xxxJonBoyxxx ( 565205 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @02:21PM (#51074445)

    >> NASA...acknowledges that any successor space station or orbiting module will be far smaller than the $140 billion space station...message from NASA to the US industry is simple: ...we have this marvelous facility available with unique capabilities, and we want you to use the heck out of it."

    So...are you selling off taxpayers' $140B investment for pennies on the dollar or are you going to deorbit the existing spacestation and prod private industry to replace it when it's gone?

    • By 2024 the first modules of the ISS will be closing in to their expected end of life. While they won't immediately fail it does mean that the chances of seals or equipment failing start to rise past acceptable tolerances.

      I would like to see replacement modules created and sent up. Any salvageable equipment from the old module should be saved and installed in the new module to help reduce costs (mostly those to lift it to orbit). However it seems unlikely to happen as budgets are small and interests from

    • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )
      Shortly after orbiter Columbia crashed in 2003, (story I heard) Paul Shawcross and others at NASA HQ pushed proposal to not return Shuttle to flight, de-orbit the space station, cut NASA budget in half, and focus remaining NASA to develop new technology (i.e. put a end to HSF as program was not developing anything new). Obviously that didn't happen. But wait, NASA was in same situation in 1969/1970/1971 when looking for "the next big thing" after Apollo. Space budgets were being slashed, proposed Mars missi
      • The fix was in for the Space Shuttle. It was intended from the beginning to be a military program [airspacemag.com], but operating under the cover (and appropriating the budget) of the civilian space program. The payload specs (weight, bay size), the whole winged flight thing (turning it into a deadly dangerous system for the crew), the overall system specs to make it capable of a polar launch from Vandenburg (never used), all of these were military requirements, not driven by any civilian needs.

        All that stuff about cutting

        • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )
          ah yes, the big wings for 1500 mile cross track ability (or whatever term) for single orbit from Vandenberg, deploy satellite and land. Or better yet, grab a Soviet "bird." But when Challenger blew up and Titan down for the count, Space Command was in a bind with no way to put up a recon satellite. Whatever the case may be, those orbiters sure looked cool in space, and with those big windows! Actually engineers were not "wrong" it was overall management had to oversell the program which has always been the
        • by Rei ( 128717 )

          It's interesting to look at why they were planning on such a big launch rate. NASA's operating assumptions were on the continuation of Apollo-era budgets. They were envisioning first reboosting, refursbishing, and expanding Skylab, then two new huge projects coming online: a permanent moon base, with rotating crews, and a huge, 50-man orbital space base, with the Shuttle in its proposed "space bus" configuration wherein the cargo bay would be converted to a people carrier, like a space jetliner. There wou

  • The USA's continued cooperation with Russia on the ISS mission has been one of the many things that keeps me assured that we're not going to just completely devolve into war, because nobody wants to come to blows over that particular asset. And now we're trying to get out of ISS involvement "as quickly as we can."

    Wow.

    • by k6mfw ( 1182893 )
      I second your feelings on this. ISS has been a huge Peace Dividend. I wonder when in 1990s when we had an air war in Kosovo which also relations with Russia significantly deteriorated but we never got into a shooting war with them (all this was in same area of their former Warsaw Pact allies), maybe it was ISS program that prevented Kosovo spreading beyond like in WWI.
    • The USA's continued cooperation with Russia on the ISS mission has been one of the many things that keeps me assured that we're not going to just completely devolve into war, because nobody wants to come to blows over that particular asset. And now we're trying to get out of ISS involvement "as quickly as we can."

      Cooperation with Russia on the ISS is quickly being replaced by confrontation with Russia on ISIS.

  • Fantastic! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by cyn1c77 ( 928549 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @02:59PM (#51074791)

    This is actually great news for many who were pro-space exploration.

    After their wildly successful lunar missions, NASA got stuck in LEO decades ago and has never been able to escape. It's continuously drained all of their money and talent into stationkeeping for the US military and corporations and eliminated the possibility of human exploration in space.

    Ultimately, I think this is just gamesmanship. The government won't let NASA completely abandon LEO, it's really a strategic asset. However, they may have to cough up more funding or split the agency to support both LEO efforts and actual space exploration. That is likely what NASA wants.

    • by tsotha ( 720379 )

      It's continuously drained all of their money and talent into stationkeeping for the US military and corporations and eliminated the possibility of human exploration in space.

      How were they stationkeeping for corporations and the military? NASA can't do anything without corporations, so whatever it did the corporations would have made money. And the military? The military wants nothing to do with NASA, for the most part. From their perspective it's just a big money pit.

  • http://www.windows2universe.org/kids_space/sat.html

    http://www.universetoday.com/42198/how-many-satellites-in-space/

  • Well let's see if NASA abandons ISS will Russians or Europeans take control of it? There is Japan as they have an awesome module on ISS and they are very capable. Then there is the new spacers, let's see if they can maintain this facility. Several "Ayd Rand in Space" people have been saying for years they can do it better and cheaper without govt funds...
    • by Anonymous Coward

      I don't believe for one minute there is enough private sector space activity to take more than a tiny corner of the ISS. You could take the entire combined and sustained space footprint of SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, ULA, Armadillo, Blue Origin, and throw in Virgin Galactic for good measure.

      Where is the demand for these companies to remain in space or have a permanent presence? Even if they were to scale up quickly, they don't really have business models based upon going to and staying at an orbital platfor

      • The Walt Disney space station. He wanted to do it but would have bankrupted Disney before he got even one piece in orbit. That was back in the 1950's and space is a lot cheaper now. A lot cheaper is still enough to bankrupt anything but the biggest corporations, and even them it still frightens them.. Let alone that the technologies that can really make large scale space tech cheap enough to be commercially viable - almost all basically require or start with nuclear rockets.

    • Private space will almost certainly not do the iss. Too much politics, and BS. Instead, bigelow will likely launch in 2 more years. One area that I would love to see NASA do a cots program for, is bathrooms ( I.e. toilet AND showers ), and kitchen. It would be useful to see something similar to what Skylab had for a shower.
  • by CaptnCrud ( 938493 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @04:29PM (#51075691)

    The less red tape needed to just use the thing the more use it will get. Part of the reason the ISS is so ridiculously over budgets is because of all the BS redundancy and BS "safe" tech high-pork approach (as in, scared to use fancy new things like "kevlar" and "carbon fiber", or scary words like "inflatables"....but lets keep using laptops from 15 years ago because they are COTS approved.).

    As someone who used to work there, all I can say is NASA is often NASA's worst enemy....budget issues aside.

  • I wonder how much the current purveyors of unaccountable, opaquely financed, space junk (such as SpaceX) bribed them to say that.

    No thank you, but NASA would do well to return to high-quality space travel, no matter the distance. They'd also do well to return back to at least the 1980's with a more Shuttle-like (and not Apollo-like) design.

  • by Irate Engineer ( 2814313 ) on Monday December 07, 2015 @08:18PM (#51077165)

    The recent Commercial Space Bill mandates that NASA maintains the ISS as a "viable and productive facility capable of potential U.S. utilization through at least 30 September 2024" [congress.gov].

    Moving on is hard to do sometimes.

  • successor space station ... will be far smaller...

    Because NASA plans to piss in the punch bowl by deorbiting the thing, instead of letting someone else have it?

    Why wouldn't a "successor space station" be exactly the same size, because it's the same station, only new and improved, with all the NASA cleaned out of it?

    Seems a little asshole-y, given that they didn't pay for the whole thing, and didn't even orbit all of the modules.

    And if they end up with squatters? Guess what: develop an orbital capability of

  • Sometimes moving on can be hard and hurts, but holding on to something that can never be is even harder and hurtful.

Time is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen at once. Space is nature's way of making sure that everything doesn't happen to you.

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