Privatising the International Space Station is the start of the first city in space

The NASA-operated International Space Station’s days are numbered, but that may not be the end of the station itself. We find out how privatising the ISS could be the start of the first city in low-Earth orbit

The clock is ticking on NASA’s time aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The agency has set its sights on targets deeper into space, and the station itself, at least on NASA’s side, is unlikely to last beyond a decade without a significant overhaul.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the end for the ISS. Back in August, Bill Hill, NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, suggested that the ISS’ future lay with the private sector.

“NASA is trying to develop economic development in low-Earth orbit,” he said during a NASA press conference. “Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit.”

He’s not the only one with this view. “I certainly hope it’s privatised,” says James Muncy, founder of US-based space policy consultancy PoliSpace. “The issue is not just whether or not the International Space Station as the facility exists right now is privatised, the real easy issue is starting in 2024 or thereabouts when NASA has a need for a research capability in low-Earth orbit, do they choose to operate their own space station or do they choose to buy services from a commercial infrastructure provider?”

Running alongside this discussion is the steady growth of the commercial space industry, which according to Michael Suffredini, former NASA manager of the ISS and president of Axiom Space, now accounts for between 30% and 35% of activity on the space station.

The industry is still developing, but right now there is a mood many have compared to the California gold rush. And if privatisation of the space station is successful, this could lead to an explosion of economic activity in low-Earth orbit, and eventually, a city beyond the atmosphere.

Making money in low-Earth orbit

Regular access to low-Earth orbit (LEO), which is what the ISS provides, has proved to be immensely valuable to humanity, both in terms of our understanding and access to the wider universe, and our ability to improve life on Earth.

In addition to offering a space for satellites that do everything from provide communications infrastructure to monitor climate events, LEO is a vital proving ground for missions further into the solar system.


“We can’t afford to figure [life support] out on the journey to Mars,” said Suffredini, during a talk at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Space for Inspiration Summit. “You really can’t do a sustained deep-space mission without a low-Earth orbit platform.”

But LEO is beginning to show promise for a wide variety of other purposes, thanks to the efforts of the commercial space industry.

“There are already what I would call experimental things going on,” says Muncy. “You would never build a permanently manned space station in order to pursue these economic opportunities, but given that we have the marginal cost of using the space station, to generate new economic activity makes sense.”

Among these are space 3D printing company Made in Space, which has already begun a project to manufacture optical fibre on the ISS due to the increase in fibre quality that manufacturing in micro-gravity provides. Other materials could see similar benefits, making LEO a potential manufacturing hotbed in the future.

“This is where I think the biggest growth will happen,” added Suffredini. “It won’t happen overnight, but if we keep working at it, it will happen.”

Even satellites could be made there and then launched, cutting deployment times from months to less than a week and allowing them to be quickly added as needed, such as in the event of a volcanic eruption.

Then there’s the demand for private research, space tourism and even sovereign astronauts from non-space-faring nations, all of which make the potential to make money in LEO ever greater.

NASA moves on

For better or for worse, however, NASA’s days running the ISS are numbered.

“Fundamentally NASA has decided that commercialisation of low-Earth orbit is one of our agency objectives,” summarised Marybeth Edeen, ISS research integration office manager for NASA, also speaking at ESA‘s Space for Inspiration Summit.

A key reason for this is the agency’s plans for cis-lunar space and Mars, combined with its modest budget.

You can’t maintain the current programme infrastructure and the new programme simultaneously unless you dramatically increase NASA’s budget, and no one is predicting that that’s going to happen

“There continues to be beneficial things that NASA can do and things that NASA probably needs to do in low-Earth orbit to support human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, but you can’t afford to spend $4bn a year operating the ISS, including the costs of delivery cargo and crew and things like that, and also mount the missions that you want to mount,” says Muncy.

“You can’t maintain the current programme infrastructure and the new programme simultaneously unless you dramatically increase NASA’s budget, and no one is predicting that that’s going to happen.”

Even if it was able to find the cash, the ISS is likely to hit NASA with a major repair bill before long.

“NASA believes that most of the hardware elements on the non-Russian part of the space station can function through at least probably 2028, plus or minus [a few years], and that’s with spare parts that have already been manufactured,” explains Muncy.

“Well, it may be that some of the core elements on the US side or some of the core elements on the Russian side really can’t function reliably or cost effectively a whole lot longer after 2024, 2027.”

The need for action

For the fledgling commercial space industry, there is an increasingly urgent need to ensure continuity.

“We have to make sure that with the end of ISS activities we will not stop because otherwise nobody will invest, and who invests has to be convinced that we have continuation,” said Fritz Merkle, a member of the management board of OHB System, one of the biggest private space companies in Europe, at the ESA event.

“To do commercial activities on the space station takes 6 to 7 years ‒ who will invest if someone switches off the lights?”

Some have proposed that the industry simply build a new space station, but this would likely come with casualties.

“I would expect some companies would survive, but most would fail if they had to start from the ground up on a new platform,” added Suffredini. “The important part in my mind is the transition.”

Suffredini, though, may have the answer. His company Axiom Space is developing a commercial module for the ISS, and with a deployment date set for 2020, it could represent the start of serious commercial activity on the space station.

“We’re proposing that we build a module to go to the International Space Station first,” he said. “It’ll be a very large module; it will host astronauts.”

Growing the low-Earth orbit economy

The transition to commercialisation is, according to Muncy, set to be led by the increase in the ISS’ population, which will come with the introduction of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.

Summarised by NASA as “like getting a taxi ride to low-Earth orbit”, this will see SpaceX and Boeing carry astronauts to the ISS for both NASA and ‒ potentially ‒ private companies.

“When commercial crews start functioning in a year to two years for NASA, they will be able to expand the crew size of the international base station fairly dramatically,” explains Muncy.


Images courtesy of ESA/NASA

Initially, he says, they will be able to up their constant population by just one to 7, with the maximum capacity of the ISS currently running at 12, but this alone would give a significant boost to the amount of time available to undertake commercial research.

“Right now with six people at the space station, NASA and its non-Russian partners share approximately 40 hours a week; basically one person working full-time in space,” he adds.

“With seven people we will immediately have another whole person because you don’t need the next person to actually work on infrastructure of the space station at all. They can effectively work full-time on research. If we can expand the crew size up to 9 or 12 then you’ll have several times more ability to carry out research and commercial experiments on the space station.”

As research opens up more commercial opportunities in LEO, it could kickstart a cycle of growth for the industry that will lead to more people going into space for more reasons.

“We hope that as we lower the costs, as Elon Musk continues to lower the cost of rockets, as Jeff Bezos enters the orbital launch market, you will see price competition in launch, that it will become cheaper to get people up there,” says Muncy.

This, he says, would drive the development of “not very pretty but cost-effective, workable habitats and space facilities built in low-Earth orbit that keep people alive to do research, manufacture things and try out commercial projects.”

“As it becomes less expensive for people to operate in low-Earth orbit, more commercial applications will make sense and you’ll have a virtuous cycle of lower costs, more users, more applications, more new things you can do that are of benefit,” he continues.

“That will drive having more people in space, which will lower the cost of having one person in space, and the cycle continues.”

A permanent home

According to Muncy, this rapid development of the commercial space industry could lead to people living in low-Earth orbit within this century.

“You could absolutely see these very small humble beginnings at ISS lead to – if we privatise it correctly, if we generate new commercial activities correctly, if we find a way for the government to let go of control and to turn more over to free citizens from the nations that helped build the ISS – then you could see cities in space come out of it within 50 years. That’s the reason to have it.

The question is how do we use that first six-person settlement to grow a 12-person settlement? And to grow a 20-person settlement?

“It’s the first human settlement in space. It may only have six people on it, but you have to start somewhere. The question is how do we use that first six-person settlement to grow a 12-person settlement? And to grow a 20-person settlement? And to grow multiple settlements of some number of people so that ultimately you have hundreds of people living in space, and then thousands of people living in space?”

At that point, Muncy says, you have a community where “the normal creativity and enterprise and the ambition and curiosity of humanity takes over,” driving the cost down to a level where at least some of the population can afford it.

“[As] more people visit space, the cost of going into space goes from right now with the Russians about $80 million per person down to $8 million per person. Well how many people at that point could afford either to buy a ticket, or to come up with some sort of economic activity in space that would justify going to space?” he asks.

“Is it billions? No. Is it millions? No. But it is thousands, maybe tens of thousands. And if it’s tens of thousands, then the cost of going into space will go down from millions to perhaps hundreds of thousands. And if it gets down to hundreds of thousands, well then after you’ve worked a long time in your life, or I’ve worked a long time in my life, who knows? We might sell our house and go into space.”

Life goes on

For many, low-Earth orbit could become the new frontier, where new lives can be made and new communities founded.

“It’s not as cheap as getting on a steam ship from Poland in the early 1900s to go to America but it’s still a frontier,” says Muncy.

“It’s still a new place with new rules, new resources and new opportunities, where people who for whatever reason would like to do something new in their lives. It’s going to be hard and risky and expensive, but over time it will become more civilised, and the opportunities will be there for people on Earth with the dream and the motivation and hopefully either some money or the ability to raise the money to go try their ideas.”

In time, perhaps even before 2050, we could see the first children being born in LEO, particularly if efforts are made to develop artificial gravity.

ftr_1609_feature_footer“If there are people living in space for long periods of time and we’ve found a way to deal with the gravitational effects of living in space, by coming up with countermeasures like spinning two modules so you create artificial gravity or whatever; if we can deal with those biological issues that we already know exist, then I see no reason why you couldn’t have conception and birth – certainly live births in space and quite probably conceptions in space.

“We’re not there yet because we don’t have enough people in space and we are too embarrassed to even talk about sex in space. But if people are going to live in space then people are going to reproduce in space.”

XPRIZE launches contest to build remote-controlled robot avatars

Prize fund XPRIZE and All Nippon Airways are offering $10 million reward to research teas who develop tech that eliminates the need to physically travel. The initial idea is that instead of plane travel, people could use goggles, ear phones and haptic tech to control a humanoid robot and experience different locations.

Source: Tech Crunch

NASA reveals plans for huge spacecraft to blow up asteroids

NASA has revealed plans for a huge nuclear spacecraft capable of shunting or blowing up an asteroid if it was on course to wipe out life on Earth. The agency published details of its Hammer deterrent, which is an eight tonne spaceship capable of deflecting a giant space rock.

Source: The Telegraph

Sierra Leone hosts the world’s first blockchain-powered elections

Sierra Leone recorded votes in its recent election to a blockchain. The tech, anonymously stored votes in an immutable ledger, thereby offering instant access to the election results. “This is the first time a government election is using blockchain technology,” said Leonardo Gammar of Agora, the company behind the technology.

Source: Quartz

AI-powered robot shoots perfect free throws

Japanese news agency Asahi Shimbun has reported on a AI-powered robot that shoots perfect free throws in a game of basketball. The robot was training by repeating shots, up to 12 feet from the hoop, 200,000 times, and its developers said it can hit these close shots with almost perfect accuracy.

Source: Motherboard

Russia accused of engineering cyberattacks by the US

Russia has been accused of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted critical infrastructure in America and Europe, which could have sabotaged or shut down power plants. US officials and private security firms claim the attacks are a signal by Russia that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities.

Google founder Larry Page unveils self-flying air taxi

A firm funded by Google founder Larry Page has unveiled an electric, self-flying air taxi that can travel at up to 180 km/h (110mph). The taxi takes off and lands vertically, and can do 100 km on a single charge. It will eventually be available to customers as a service "similar to an airline or a rideshare".

Source: BBC

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. When Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease aged 22, doctors predicted he would live just a few more years. But in the ensuing 54 years he married, kept working and inspired millions of people around the world. In his last few years, Hawking was outspoken of the subject of AI, and Factor got the chance to hear him speak on the subject at Web Summit 2017…

Stephen Hawking was often described as being a vocal critic of AI. Headlines were filled with predictions of doom by from scientist, but the reality was more complex.

Hawking was not convinced that AI was to become the harbinger of the end of humanity, but instead was balanced about its risks and rewards, and at a compelling talk broadcast at Web Summit, he outlined his perspectives and what the tech world can do to ensure the end results are positive.

Stephen Hawking on the potential challenges and opportunities of AI

Beginning with the potential of artificial intelligence, Hawking highlighted the potential level of sophistication that the technology could reach.

“There are many challenges and opportunities facing us at this moment, and I believe that one of the biggest of these is the advent and impact of AI for humanity,” said Hawking in the talk. “As most of you may know, I am on record as saying that I believe there is no real difference between what can be achieved by a biological brain and what can be achieved by a computer.

“Of course, there is unlimited potential for what the human mind can learn and develop. So if my reasoning is correct, it also follows that computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence and exceed it.”

Moving onto the potential impact, he began with an optimistic tone, identifying the technology as a possible tool for health, the environment and beyond.

“We cannot predict what we might achieve when our own minds are amplified by AI. Perhaps with the tools of this new technological revolution, we will be able to undo some of the damage done to the natural world by the last one: industrialisation,” he said.

“We will aim to finally eradicate disease and poverty; every aspect of our lives will be transformed.”

However, he also acknowledged the negatives of the technology, from warfare to economic destruction.

“In short, success in creating effective AI could be the biggest event in the history of our civilisation, or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and sidelined or conceivably destroyed by it,” he said.

“Unless we learn how to prepare for – and avoid – the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilisation. It brings dangers like powerful autonomous weapons or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy.

“Already we have concerns that clever machines will be increasingly capable of undertaking work currently done by humans, and swiftly destroy millions of jobs. AI could develop a will of its own, a will that is in conflict with ours and which could destroy us.

“In short, the rise of powerful AI will be either the best or the worst thing ever to happen to humanity.”

In the vanguard of AI development

In 2014, Hawking and several other scientists and experts called for increased levels of research to be undertaken in the field of AI, which he acknowledged has begun to happen.

“I am very glad that someone was listening to me,” he said.

However, he argued that there is there is much to be done if we are to ensure the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat.

“To control AI and make it work for us and eliminate – as far as possible – its very real dangers, we need to employ best practice and effective management in all areas of its development,” he said. “That goes without saying, of course, that this is what every sector of the economy should incorporate into its ethos and vision, but with artificial intelligence this is vital.”

Addressing a thousands-strong crowd of tech-savvy attendees at the event, he urged them to think beyond the immediate business potential of the technology.

“Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit”

“Everyone here today is in the vanguard of AI development. We are the scientists. We develop an idea. But you are also the influencers: you need to make it work. Perhaps we should all stop for a moment and focus our thinking not only on making AI more capable and successful, but on maximising its societal benefit,” he said. “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do, for the benefit of humanity.”

In particular he raised the importance of working across different fields.

“Interdisciplinary research can be a way forward, ranging from economics and law to computer security, formal methods and, of course, various branches of AI itself,” he said.

“Such considerations motivated the American Association for Artificial Intelligence Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures, which up until recently had focused largely on techniques that are neutral with respect to purpose.”

He also gave the example of calls at the start of 2017 by Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) the introduction of liability rules around AI and robotics.

“MEPs called for more comprehensive robot rules in a new draft report concerning the rules on robotics, and citing the development of AI as one of the most prominent technological trends of our century,” he summarised.

“The report calls for a set of core fundamental values, an urgent regulation on the recent developments to govern the use and creation of robots and AI. [It] acknowledges the possibility that within the space of a few decades, AI could surpass human intellectual capacity and challenge the human-robot relationship.

“Finally, the report calls for the creation of a European agency for robotics and AI that can provide technical, ethical and regulatory expertise. If MEPs vote in favour of legislation, the report will go to the European Commission, which will decide what legislative steps it will take.”

Creating artificial intelligence for the world

No one can say for certain whether AI will truly be a force for positive or negative change, but – despite the headlines – Hawking was positive about the future.

“I am an optimist and I believe that we can create AI for the world that can work in harmony with us. We simply need to be aware of the dangers, identify them, employ the best possible practice and management and prepare for its consequences well in advance,” he said. “Perhaps some of you listening today will already have solutions or answers to the many questions AI poses.”

You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big

However, he stressed that everyone has a part to play in ensuring AI is ultimately a benefit to humanity.

“We all have a role to play in making sure that we, and the next generation, have not just the opportunity but the determination to engage fully with the study of science at an early level, so that we can go on to fulfill our potential and create a better world for the whole human race,” he said.

“We need to take learning beyond a theoretical discussion of how AI should be, and take action to make sure we plan for how it can be. You all have the potential to push the boundaries of what is accepted or expected, and to think big.

“We stand on the threshold of a brave new world. It is an exciting – if precarious – place to be and you are the pioneers. I wish you well.”