Photo: Steve Gonzales, Staff
Webster's NanoRacks expands its role in commercial space
An airlock destined for the International Space Station sat near the bottom of a 40-foot pool as astronauts hoisted bulky suits around its curvatures. NASA was testing the station's first complex fixture - an element that could one day be attached to a commercial space station - that is privately owned.
"If we're going to see an economy develop in low-Earth orbit the commercial sector has got to be able to provide and operate things like this," said Mike Read, manager of the International Space Station's commercial space utilization office.
That's the goal of Webster-based NanoRacks, which has evolved from getting experiments on the space station to developing an airlock that will help deploy satellites. Ultimately, NanoRacks hopes its roughly $12 million airlock will be detached from the government-owned space station and reattached to one that is commercially owned and operated.
"The goal of this is to continue to build the marketplace so there's more commercial users of ISS," said Brock Howe, NanoRacks' project manager for the airlock. "And then, at the point when the government is ready to retire the big space station, there are a lot of people using it that can then justify the price of having a commercial space station."
Read said the test in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in late June was standard for any new element being attached to the space station. NASA astronauts were testing handrail placements to ensure they could maneuver around the airlock during space walks.
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This is just one of many tests the airlock will undergo before May 2019 when it's scheduled to hitch a ride to the International Space Station on the SpaceX Dragon.
"It's a big step for us to turn over operation of something as critical as an airlock," Read said.
NanoRacks and NASA signed a Space Act Agreement in May 2016 to begin development of the airlock. Nine months later, NanoRacks selected Boeing to develop the critical seal that connects the airlock to the space station. This device, called a Passive Common Berthing Mechanism, is essential for pressurizing the unit.
The airlock is about eight feet in diameter and will be five times larger than the space station's existing airlock. The existing airlock, in the Japanese Experiment Module, has a door for loading satellites and another door for ejecting them into space. NanoRacks' airlock will have only one hatch.
Astronauts will go inside the NanoRacks airlock while it's pressurized and arrange satellites. Once they leave, air is sucked out and the space station's robotic arm disconnects the airlock from the space station. The airlock is positioned away from the space station, and then satellites are deployed.
This design will allow NanoRacks to deploy larger satellites or several smaller satellites simultaneously. NASA will operate the robotic arm, and NanoRacks will deploy the satellites from its office in Webster.
"One of the big savings that NASA likes a lot is it will reduce crew time," Howe said. "Crew time is one of the most precious resources they have on station."
Payloads can also be attached to the airlock's exterior to hold experiments or cameras taking pictures of Earth.
Howe expects the airlock will be used four to six times a year, though that could change depending on demand.
"It's really going to be governed by the commercial marketplace," Howe said. "So if people want to use it, and scientists and experimenters want to use it, I think we will be able to use it more often. Because that's what ISS is trying to do. They're trying to embrace users of the space station."
Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies for Teal Group, said the company found "novel ways to make money in space, to make use of an incredible asset." Some people believe the space station hasn't been used to its fullest potential, and companies like NanoRacks could help change that.
Yet most commercial space efforts aren't focused on the space station, he said. Companies are more focused on launch vehicles and satellites because those are more obvious money makers. The space station could have an advantage if it provides a cheaper avenue for deploying satellites, Caceres said.
NanoRacks has found it is cheaper from the space station because it costs less to ride on a rocket bringing other cargo to the space station than on a rocket being launched solely for the satellites, Howe said.
NanoRacks must have 90 percent of the airlock's design completed by late October. It has already begun fabricating some parts, but that will pick up after October. NanoRacks is considering two vendors along the East Coast, and then those pieces will be shipped to Webster for assembly in NanoRacks' clean room.
"For NanoRacks to land that deal and to be able to accomplish what they've accomplished to date speaks volumes for this area and speak volumes for the commercial space industry," said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.
Looking ahead, NanoRacks is part of a team studying if rocket upper stages could be converted into space habitats. An upper stage is part of the rocket engine that is discarded in space after all of the fuel has been used.
Using these rocket components could be a more affordable way to create a commercial space station compared with building modules on the ground and launching them into orbit.
Ultimately, Howe said, NanoRacks wants to be involved if a commercial space station comes to fruition.
"Building a commercial space station will not be easy," he said. "There's lots of challenges ahead of the team to get that done. And we will see if the space industry can rise to the occasion and make it happen."
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