NASA continues its push to commercialize low-Earth orbit, with the announcement of three companies that have been chosen to design private space stations. As the International Space Station ages and approaches retirement, NASA is providing funding for private companies to plan out potential replacements which could take over its research functions.
“Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”
In a recently released report, NASA says is likely that the ISS will continue operating until 2030, but it sees a potential gap between the end of its life and the development of a new international space station. That’s why it plans for one or more of these commercial space stations to be operating by 2028, allowing continuous human presence in low-Earth orbit.
The three companies chosen are Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, well-known aerospace company Northrop Grumman, and a smaller company called Nanoracks which specializes in the re-use of space debris. A total of $415.6 million has been awarded to fund the design project. Over the next four years, these companies will develop their plans for space stations in low-Earth orbit which could be used by both government agencies and the private sector.
NASA’s plan is to encourage private companies to develop space stations, and then purchase services whereby its astronauts can stay and work on the stations. This would be similar to the current system of ferrying astronauts and cargo between Earth and the ISS using private company’s rockets, like the SpaceX Crew Dragon or the Northrop Grumman Cygnus. NASA argues that “This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost, enabling NASA to focus on its Artemis missions to the moon and on to Mars while continuing to use low-Earth orbit as a training and proving ground.”
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