SpaceX Dragon Endeavor Crew docked to the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration last year marked two decades of astronauts continuously aboard the International Space Station. But, as the floating research lab ages, the space agency is turning to private companies to build and deploy new free-flight habitats in low Earth orbit.
Last week, NASA unveiled the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) project, with plans to award up to $ 400 million in total to up to four companies in the fourth quarter of 2021 to begin development on private space stations.
The agency seeks to replicate the success of its Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs. Those programs saw three companies take over NASA as their means of sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA’s LEO Commercial Director Phil McAlister said he thinks the low-Earth orbit domain has three main activities: “Cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations.” NASA has transferred responsibility for the first two activities to private companies, with the agency paying SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to send cargo spacecraft to the ISS, as well as SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts. McAlister noted that previously, NASA had full ownership of all three activities.
“If it were always like this, our aspirations in low Earth orbit would always be limited by the size of NASA’s budget,” McAlister said in a briefing Tuesday. “By incorporating the private sector in these sections and in these areas, as providers and users, the boat expands and you have more people in low Earth orbit.”
NASA is opening the International Space Station for tourists with the first mission in 2020.
Stocktrek Images | fake images
The potential cost savings of NASA being a user of space stations, rather than an owner and operator, is a key motivator for the CLD program. The International Space Station costs NASA about $ 4 billion a year to operate. Additionally, the ISS cost a total of $ 150 billion to develop and build, with NASA bearing most of that bill, with Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada each contributing.
Last year, NASA estimated that the Commercial Crew program alone is estimated to have saved the agency between $ 20 billion and $ 30 billion, while funding the development of two spacecraft, rather than just one. While Boeing has yet to complete development testing, suffering a prolonged setback after the launch of its first unmanned Starliner capsule in December 2019 failed due to multiple anomalies, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is now flying astronauts from NASA operationally.
Another motivator for starting the CLD program is the aging hardware of the ISS, as much of the space station’s core structures were manufactured in the 1990s and the final pressurized structure was added in 2011. Last year, cosmonauts Russians worked to repair a small air leak in a space. station module.
“The ISS is an amazing system, but unfortunately, it won’t last forever,” McAlister said. “You could experience an unrecoverable abnormality at any time.”
NASA views the CLD program as a way for multiple companies to develop and build new habitats in the coming years, so that the agency has a period of overlap before the ISS is retired. McAlister noted that apart from the CLD program, NASA awarded spaceflight specialist Axiom Space a $ 140 million contract to build modules to add to the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to separate its modules and turn it into a free-flying space station.
“We are making progress there and we are very happy with that,” McAlister said. “We would like to have competition in the supply area, that is why we are doing [CLD]. It has always been part of our plan to both attach modules and have free brochures. “
An Axiom spokesperson, in a statement to CNBC, said the company “broadly supports NASA’s vision of a multifaceted LEO economy.”
“We are raising private funds to design and develop our world’s first commercial destination to demonstrate that true commercial leadership can drive the LEO economy. The construction of the Axiom Station initially as an extension of the International Space Station will expand the work that it can do short-term stationing, and it’s best to allow for a smooth and timely transition when the ISS reaches the end of its useful life, “Axiom said.
A list of NASA organizations registered for the briefing revealed a wide variety of aerospace and space companies, including: Airbus US, Blue Origin, Boeing, Collins Aerospace, Firefly Aerospace, General Dynamics, ispace, Lockheed Martin, Moog, Nanoracks , Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Redwire Space, RUAG Space, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Voyager Space Holdings, and York Space Systems.
One such company has already announced that it will soon unveil its plan for a free-flying space station. Sierra Nevada Corporation, or SNC, said it will host a virtual press conference on March 31 to reveal the design for the “SNC Space Station.”
NASA will release a final announcement for the CLD proposals in May, and the first phase of funding is expected between October and December. NASA’s Johnson Space Center will administer the CLD program through its LEO business development office.