Logo 468x60

American companies race to design private space stations before ISS goes offline

Miriam Kramer

WASHINGTON DC: Companies are rapidly designing private space stations that could one day dominate operations in orbit around Earth.

Why it matters: NASA is hoping private industry will start to take over operations in low-Earth orbit once the International Space Station comes to an end, creating a robust commercial market in that part of space.

Commercially operated private space stations are a big part of NASA’s vision to buy services from companies in orbit and then focus on further afield goals like getting to the Moon and Mars.

Driving the news: NASA detailed an initiative at the end of March asking companies to partner with them in the development of private space stations that might act as a destination for NASA astronauts and research in the future.

Under these agreements, NASA would help support the companies as they develop the space stations and carry out preliminary design reviews — an important technical assessment of what it will take to get a station flying — by the end of fiscal year 2025.

On the heels of that announcement, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced its plans to build a private space station.

Another company, Axiom Space, already has plans in motion to build its own commercial space station after first attaching a module to the International Space Station at some point in the coming years.

Between the lines: NASA wants to avoid having a gap in the agency’s regular access to orbit when the ISS is retired 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 it wants to be able to transition smoothly to private stations instead of a hard stop when the ISS ends.

“We’re not going to just turn off the lights one day,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said during an event. “We’re going to have an overlap period where we, over a period of time, draw down the operations of ISS as we increase operations for LEO [low-Earth orbit] destinations. So that gives us some time.”

NASA has already effectively proved out this kind of public/private partnership model with SpaceX flying astronauts to orbit.

But, but, but: Operating a private space station is a much bigger task than simply launching people to space, and some experts in the industry say there isn’t enough time for private companies to get their space stations functioning before the ISS comes to an end.

The funding attached to NASA’s new program also may not be enough to get these stations off the ground in time.

“I don’t see how they’re going to get it together by 2024 [or] 2028,” Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios. “I think it is much more likely that we’ll see the Chinese space station well before the commercial space station or a private-sector space station.”