NASA wants to install extra airlock space on the ISS, then lease it to private companies

nanoracks to build private airlock for the iss nanoracks2
NanoRacks
As the commercialization of space looks to gain significant momentum in 2016, there’s still one big problem standing in the way of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin using the International Space Station as they see fit: the decades-old ISS features but one equipment airlock. To bog operations down even further, the lone airlock resides inside the Japanese Space Agency’s (JAXA) Kibo module and possesses the capability of transferring cargo roughly the size of a large oven. Considering the airlock opens just ten times per year — five times for JAXA and five for NASA and its commercial allies — the need for a dedicated, private airlock is great, and a company from Texas says it’s ready to launch NASA’s solution.

Say hello to NanoRacks, a self-described entrepreneurial company who opened its doors with the sole purpose of creating a simple and efficient way for others to get to space. Be it high schools and universities, government space agencies, or other companies altogether, the folks at NanoRacks have essentially acted as NASA’s right hand to spearhead the commercialization of space. By focusing on uniting three basic concepts — low-cost, standardization of hardware, and understanding its customers — it hopes to facilitate the creation of a commercial environment available to everyone (who pays, of course).

“We developed a commercial pathway to the station, and now we want to extend that pathway outside the station,” says NanoRacks managing director Jeff Manber to Ars Technica. “This is a sign that we believe in the future of the station.”

A photo of NanoRacks' CubeSat Deployer as photographed by astronaut Scott Kelly
A photo of NanoRacks’ CubeSat Deployer as photographed by astronaut Scott Kelly NanoRacks

According to NanoLocks, the intended project would cost the company somewhere between $12 and $15 million, and would likely lift off to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Dragon capsule by as early as 2018. However, NASA has yet to officially sign off on the airlock and is currently conducting integration tests with Boeing (its primary ISS contractor).

“We’re very intrigued by it, and we haven’t found any showstoppers so far,” manager of the space station National Lab Office, Mike Read, told Ars.

Should the agency give NanoRacks’ private airlock the green light, the available benefits for NASA would be extensive. First off, it would greatly assist in the continuation of NASA’s quest to commercialize space and allow for an influx of resources to help build out its Commercial Crew program — of which Congress just awarded $1.2 billion in funding for 2016. Additionally, a dedicated, private airlock would likely provide NASA (and others) the ability to access it far more than just five times annually, with projections hinting at it being used at least 12 times per year. The airlock could also serve as a launch site for CubeSats and larger satellites, while providing NASA a reliable method for retrieving damaged storage tanks and pumps, instead of simply scrapping them in space.

To begin, NanoRacks says it plans on manufacturing a half-cylinder container measuring roughly six and a half feet in diameter and about six feet long. Once built (and sent to the ISS), the container would attach to the ISS’s Node 3 area via a common birthing mechanism near its cupola (one of the ISS’s dome-shaped areas). After successfully attaching, the container would then be pressurized and immediately be ready for use.

The ISS' cupola
The ISS’ cupola NASA

“From the national lab perspective, the attractive thing is that this leverages ISS in a commercial manner, built with commercial funds and operated as a commercial capability,” Read continues. “That’s what the whole concept of the National Lab is. If this works, it’s an important step toward what an exploration partnership might look like. Not only are we using [the] space station for research, we’re using it to test new business relationships for exploration, and this would be an important one.”

As Read points out, NanoRacks’ airlock is essential to the commercialization of space. Aside from offering a separate method for commercial entities to access the ISS, it also grants NASA (and its astronauts) an incredible opportunity to perform repairs and fixes from the comfort of a sizable room. Instead of relying on space walks to fix various equipment around the station, the broken part could be detached, brought into NanoRacks’ container, and evaluated without an astronaut requiring the use of a cumbersome suit. Not to mention the sheer safety factor of working inside an actual capsule (we’ve all seen Gravity) should allow those involved to rest a bit easier.

While there’s no official timeline for when NASA intends to give a yes or no answer to NanoRacks’ private airlock, the suggested timeline of 2018 bodes well for the ISS receiving its much-needed upgrade.

Emerging Tech

Burgers are just the beginning: Embracing the future of lab-grown everything

You’ve almost certainly heard of the 'farm to fork' movement, but what about 'lab to table'? Welcome to the fast-evolving world of lab-grown meat. Is this the future of food as we know it?
Emerging Tech

Alphabet’s Wing drones now have FAA approval to deliver packages in the U.S.

Alphabet Wing has become the first company to receive Air Carrier Certification from the FAA. This means that it can begin commercial deliveries from local businesses to homes in the U.S.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX experiences problem during test, Crew Dragon capsule may have exploded

SpaceX has experienced a problem during the testing of its Crew Dragon capsule. During the engine test firing at Cape Canaveral yesterday afternoon, an unspecified anomaly occurred which lead to plumes of smoke rising from the test site.
Emerging Tech

Resupply mission carries 7,600 pounds of scientific equipment to ISS

The Cygnus spacecraft has rendezvoused with the International Space Station as part of a months-long resupply mission. The craft will remain docked until July 23, while the crew take in the 7,600 pounds of research equipment it carried.
Emerging Tech

Troubleshooting Earth

It’s no secret that humans are killing the planet. Some say it’s actually so bad that we’re hurtling toward a sixth major extinction event -- one which we ourselves are causing. But can technology help us undo the damage we’ve…
Emerging Tech

Inside the Ocean Cleanup’s ambitious plan to rid the ocean of plastic waste

In 2013, Boyan Slat crowdfunded $2.2 million to fund the Ocean Cleanup, a nonprofit organization that builds big, floating trash collectors and sets them out to sea, where they’re designed to autonomously gobble up garbage.
Emerging Tech

Climeworks wants to clean the atmosphere with a fleet of truck-sized vacuums

Using machines that resemble jet engines, Climeworks wants to fight climate change by extracting CO2 from thin air. The gas can then be sold to carbonated drink and agriculture companies, or sequestered underground.
Emerging Tech

How 3D printing has changed the world of prosthetic limbs forever

When he was 13 years old, Christophe Debard had his leg amputated. Here in 2019, Debard's Print My Leg startup helps others to create 3D-printed prostheses. Welcome to a growing revolution!
Emerging Tech

Geoengineering is risky and unproven, but soon it might be necessary

Geoengineering is a field dedicated to purposely changing the world's climate using technology. Call it 'playing god' if you must; here's why its proponents believe it absolutely must happen.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Earth Day, indoor container farming, robot submarines

Today on Digital Trends Live, we discuss how technology intersects with Earth Day, a new Tim Cook biography, indoor container farming, robot spy submarines, A.I. death metal, and more.
Gaming

Google’s Stadia is the future of gaming, and that’s bad news for our planet

Google’s upcoming Stadia cloud gaming service, and its competitors, are ready to change the way gamers play, but in doing so they may kick off a new wave of data center growth – with unfortunate consequences for the environment.
Emerging Tech

Hawaiian botanists’ drone discovers a plant thought to be lost forever

In what may well be a world first, botanists in Hawaii recently used a drone to find a species of plant that scientists believed was extinct. The plant was located on a sheer cliff face nearly 20 years after its last sighting.
Emerging Tech

A battery-free pacemaker harvests and stores energy from heartbeats

Researchers in China and the United States have developed a new battery-free pacemaker which gathers its required electricity from the energy of heartbeats. Here's why that's so exciting.
Smart Home

The startup behind the world’s first laundry robot has folded

When the Laundroid was first announced almost three years ago, then shown off at last year's CES, it was met with a fair bit of both intrigue and derision. But now Seven Dreamers, the company behind it, says the company is out of money.