NASA Calls For Proposals To Stimulate Sustainable Demand For Low-Earth Orbit

The International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

April 23, 2019 – NASA and its international partners opened the door for research in orbit more than 20 years ago by launching the first pieces of the International Space Station, and NASA wants to work with U.S. industry to ensure that a robust, sustainable orbital economy will endure.

The space station is a one-of-a-kind orbiting laboratory. For more than 18 years, humans have lived and worked aboard the complex conducting thousands of experiments in areas such as human research, biology, and physical science, as well as advanced technology development. The station will play an essential role in enabling new commercial markets needed to build a sustainable ecosystem in low-Earth orbit.

To accelerate the development of sustainable, scalable, and profitable non-NASA demand in low-Earth orbit, NASA, in conjunction with the U.S. National Lab, is offering funding in two new areas of focus for U.S. companies to partner with NASA in designing and building hardware leading to commercial markets in space.

NASA will provide limited funding as a catalyst for a strong and expanding U.S. space economy in low-Earth orbit, and the U.S. space agency will become one of many customers. This will lead to reduced costs for NASA’s activities, allow the agency to focus its resources and energies on farther horizons, and take advantage of commercial partnerships at the Moon. To realize this goal, NASA is working with U.S. industry to lay a strong foundation for a sustainable economy in low-Earth orbit.

NASA has added two new focus areas to the NASA Research Announcement soliciting proposals for Exploration Technology Demonstration and National Lab Utilization Enhancements. These areas specify proposals that seek to stimulate commercial demand and capability for low-Earth orbit services.

The first area focuses on nurturing high-value future technology development sectors. NASA is seeking proposals focusing specifically on in-space manufacturing, regenerative medicine, and other critical research areas that derive unique benefits from the microgravity environment; additionally, NASA will consider fields that have not yet been fully explored that could lead to a sustainable demand for platforms in orbit.

The second area focuses on proposals to create laboratory concepts similar to capabilities found in terrestrial labs. The space station is a testbed to prove the capabilities of future commercial space stations in low-Earth orbit. As NASA looks forward to lunar missions, a continued presence in Earth orbit will be critical for research, advanced technology development, and training.

Successful ventures will support the breadth of the low-Earth orbit services: they will need the scalability that a commercial platform can provide; their needs will support the growing U.S. crew and cargo transportation industry; and their presence on commercial platforms will provide NASA the opportunity to continue conducting research, technology development, and crew flight opportunities while sharing the operating costs of the commercial lab.

To ensure continuing opportunities, NASA is leading this commercial low-Earth orbit development effort to stimulate both commercially owned and operated orbital destinations from which NASA can purchase services, and the continued growth of commercial activities in orbit so NASA and many users will have access to those services. As new commercial orbital destinations become available, NASA intends to foster an orderly transition from current space station operations and research to the new commercial enterprise as laid out in NASA’s International Space Station Transition Report of March 30, 2018. 

NASA is conducting two rounds for these new focus areas, and interested U.S. companies may submit to either round:

Round 1: White papers are due May 15, and proposals are due June 28.

Round 2: White papers are due June 15, and proposals are due July 28.

NASA expects to make a series of targeted awards this fall beginning at up to $200,000 each, with the potential for awards up to $5 million each for flight hardware production and in-flight operations.

See NASA Research Announcement NNJ13ZBG001N for more details.