SpaceX’s crew Dragon Endeavor was docked with the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration brought astronauts aboard the International Space Station for two decades last year. However, as the floating research laboratory ages, the space agency is turning to private companies to build and deploy new free-flying habitats in near-earth orbit.
Last week NASA presented the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) project. In the third quarter of 2021, up to four companies are expected to receive a total of up to $ 400 million to begin developing private space stations.
The agency is keen to replicate the success of its Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs. In these programs, three companies took over NASA to send cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA’s LEO commercial director Phil McAlister said he views the domain of low-earth orbit as three main activities: “cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations.” NASA has transferred responsibility for the two earlier activities to private companies. The agency pays SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to ship cargo spacecraft to the ISS and SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts. McAlister stressed that NASA had previously taken full ownership of all three activities.
“If it stayed that way, our near-earth orbit efforts would always be limited by the size of NASA’s budget,” McAlister said in a briefing Tuesday. “By bringing the private sector into these areas and into these areas as a supplier and user, you expand the pot and you have more people in low orbit.”
NASA will open the International Space Station to tourists with the first mission in 2020.
Stocktrek Pictures | Getty Images
NASA’s potential cost savings as a space station user, rather than as an owner and operator, is a major motivator for the CLD program. The International Space Station costs NASA about $ 4 billion a year to operate. In addition, it cost a total of $ 150 billion to develop and build the ISS, with NASA taking most of that bill, while Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada each contributed.
NASA estimated last year that the commercial crew program alone saved the agency between $ 20 billion and $ 30 billion while funding the development of two, not just one, spacecraft. While Boeing has not yet completed development testing and has suffered a prolonged setback after the Starliner capsule’s initial launch failed due to multiple anomalies in December 2019, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is now operationally flying NASA astronauts.
Another motivator for starting the CLD program is the aging hardware of the ISS, as much of the space station’s core structures were made in the 1990s and the final print structure was added in 2011. Last year Russian cosmonauts were working to fix a small air leak in a room in a station module.
“The ISS is an amazing system, but unfortunately it won’t last forever,” said McAlister. “An unrecoverable anomaly can occur at any time.”
NASA sees the CLD program as a way to get multiple companies to develop and build new habitats over the next few years so that the agency has an overlap period before the ISS retires. McAlister noted that in addition to the CLD program, NASA awarded space specialist Axiom Space a $ 140 million contract to build modules to expand the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to take its modules down and convert them into a free-flying space station.
“We’re making progress there and we’re really excited about it,” said McAlister. “We want to have competition in the utility sector, so that’s what we do [CLD]. It has always been part of our plan to have both modules installed and free leaflets. “
An Axiom spokesman said in a statement to CNBC that the company “broadly supports NASA’s vision of a multifaceted economy in LEO”.
“We are raising private funding to design and develop our world’s first commercial target to demonstrate that true commercial leadership can advance the LEO economy. Building the Axiom Station as an extension of the International Space Station will expand the work that at station in the near future and at best allow a timely and seamless transition when the ISS reaches the end of its life, “said Axiom.
A NASA list of organizations registered for the briefing revealed a wide variety of aerospace 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 of these companies has already announced that it will soon announce its plan for a free-flying space station. Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it will host a virtual press conference on March 31st to unveil the design of the “SNC Space Station”.
NASA will release a final announcement for CLD proposals in May. The first phase of the promotional awards is expected between October and December. NASA’s Johnson Space Center will manage the CLD program through its commercial LEO development office.