Companies are rapidly designing private space stations that could one day dominate operations in orbit around Earth.
Because it is important: NASA hopes that private industry will begin to take over operations in low Earth orbit once the International Space Station comes to an end, creating a strong commercial market in that part of space.
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Driving the news: NASA detailed an initiative in late March asking companies to partner with them in developing private space stations that could act as a destination for NASA astronauts and future research.
Under these agreements, NASA would help support companies as they develop space stations and conduct preliminary design reviews, an important technical assessment of what it will take for a station to fly, by the end of fiscal 2025.
Immediately after that announcement, the Sierra Nevada Corporation announced its plans to build a private space station.
Another company, Axiom Space, already has plans underway to build its own commercial space station after first connecting a module to the International Space Station sometime in the next few years.
Between lines: NASA wants to avoid a gap in the agency’s regular access to orbit when the ISS retires before the end of the decade.
The space agency was forced to rely on Russia for access to orbit when the space shuttle program ended before commercial flyers like SpaceX were up and running.
By partnering with private companies now, the agency is signaling that it wants to be able to make a smooth transition to private stations rather than an abrupt stop when the ISS ends.
“We’re not going to turn off the lights one day,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial space flight development, said during an event. “We will have an overlap period where, over a period of time, we will downsize ISS operations as we scale up LEO operations. [low-Earth orbit] Destinations. That gives us some time. “
NASA has already effectively tested this kind of public / private partnership model with SpaceX flying astronauts in orbit.
But but but: Operating a private space station is a much bigger task than simply launching people into space, and some industry experts say there isn’t enough time for private companies to get their space stations up and running before the ISS comes to an end.
The funding attached to NASA’s new program may also not be enough to get these stations off the ground on time.
“I don’t see how they are going to be fixed by 2024 [or] “I think we are much more likely to see the Chinese space station long before the commercial space station or a private sector space station,” Victoria Samson of the Safe World Foundation told Axios in 2028.
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