Accessibility of the microgravity research ecosystem


Public Domain - NASA


For decades, the International Space Station (ISS) has operated as a bastion of international cooperation and a unique testbed for microgravity research. Beyond enabling insights into human physiology in space, the ISS has served as a microgravity platform for numerous science experiments. In recent years, private industry has also been affiliating with NASA and international partners to offer transportation, logistics management, and payload demands. As the costs of flying projects to the ISS decrease, the barriers limiting non-traditional partners, like emerging space nations and startups, from accessing the ISS as a platform also decrease. 

However, the ISS in its current form cannot be sustained forever. As NASA looks towards commercialization of the low Earth orbit (LEO) space and the development of a cislunar station, concrete plans for shifting the public-private relationship of the ISS are unclear. With the consistent need to continue microgravity research—from governments and private industry—understanding the socio-technical and policy issues that affect the marketplace for future microgravity platforms is essential to maintaining an accessible and sustainable space economy. 

How will the US and other governments design public-private partnerships to pursue economic and social goals in the LEO microgravity ecosystem? What governance structures will influence who is eligible to operate platforms for activities including tourism, research, manufacturing, and outreach? How will international collaboration occur in the future LEO microgravity ecosystem? 

This project contributes to progress on these questions by offering technology policy insight using methods from Systems Engineering. Through case study research and numerous expert interviews, this project examines the stakeholders, needs, objectives, system functions and forms for the ISS and microgravity research platforms now and in the future. Particular attention is paid towards explaining the market dynamics that affect the administrative and economic barriers to entry for emerging space nations and non-traditional spaceflight participants.