An artist’s illustration of the Axiom modules attached to the International Space Station.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to retire the International Space Station by the end of this decade, so the US space agency is looking to private companies to build new space stations in orbit – and thus hopes to save more. a billion dollars a year. .
NASA earlier this year unveiled the Commercial LEO Destinations project, with plans to award up to $ 400 million in total contracts to up to four companies to begin development of private space stations.
In response to NASA’s request, director of commercial spaceflight Phil McAlister told TBEN that the agency “had received about a dozen bids” from various companies for contracts under the project.
“We have received an incredibly strong response from the industry to our announcement of free commercial flyer proposals that go straight to orbit,” said McAlister. “I don’t remember the last time we received so many offers [in response] has a [human spaceflight] contract announcement. “
The ISS is over 20 years old and costs NASA around $ 4 billion a year to operate. The space station is approved to operate until the end of 2024, with a likely life extension until the end of 2028. But, in the future, McAlister says NASA wants to “be just the one of the many users instead of the main sponsor and supporter of the “infrastructure for low earth orbit stations.”
“This strong response from industry shows that our plan to withdraw from the International Space Station in the latter part of this decade and transition to commercial space destinations is a viable and solid plan,” said McAlister.
“We are making tangible progress in developing commercial space destinations where people can work, play and live,” added McAlister.
NASA is currently evaluating the proposals and McAlister said the agency hopes to announce contract winners “before the end of the year,” although he “asks sooner.” McAlister noted that the dozen proposals came from a “diverse group of companies,” ranging from start-ups to large aerospace companies. When NASA hosted an industry briefing for company officials in March, interested parties included recognizable names like SpaceX by Elon Musk, Blue Origin by Jeff Bezos, Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In addition to the cost savings, McAlister stressed that NASA “won’t need something as big and as capable” as the ISS to move forward. He said private space stations “could be very large, but NASA will only pay for the part that we need.”
“We need to properly size our [low Earth orbit] infrastructure, ”said McAlister.
The public-private model
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavor seen docked at the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.
Rather than building and owning equipment itself, NASA has increasingly turned to public-private partnerships to achieve its goals in space. The agency has seen great success using this model over the past decade, with cargo and crew services provided via vehicles built by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
Last year, NASA estimated that the Commercial Crew program alone 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 its first unmanned Starliner capsule launch in December 2019 failed due to multiple anomalies – SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft has transported 10 astronauts to the ISS for NASA, as well as four private astronauts to orbit last week.
The agency does not expect to foot the full bill for helping companies build new space stations, with McAlister saying “the strategy has to work for both government and the private sector” from a business perspective. investments.
“You have to find that sweet spot in terms of sharing resources, sharing risk, sharing responsibility, so that both parties can benefit,” McAlister said.
“It was explicitly part of the initial announcement of the proposals that we expected cost sharing,” he added. “In the future, we don’t plan to pay for all commercial destinations. We don’t think that’s appropriate because companies are going to own the intellectual property and they are going to be able to sell that capability to non-NASA customers. . “
The Commercial Crew program serves as a guide for the Commercial LEO Destinations project, as NASA initially awarded five companies commercial crew contracts before gradually narrowing down to two in subsequent assignments.
“When you’re this early, it makes a lot of sense to have competition,” McAlister said.
NASA also sees the strong corporate interest as a signal that the US space industry “is technically and financially capable of building commercial space destinations,” McAlister said, which would reduce the agency’s “financial commitments” to the science and research in orbit.
“Then we can use those savings – which we expect to be in the range of $ 1 billion to $ 1.5 billion. [annually] – for our missions and aspirations in deep space, “he said.
Work with Axiom already
A window for the Axiom Earth Observatory module seen during manufacture.
NASA has already started funding a company’s ambitions under a separate but related contract, after awarding Axiom Space $ 140 million to build modules that will connect to the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to detach its modules and turn them into a free-flight space station.
Axiom has started manufacturing these modules, including the huge windows that will serve as an observation platform. The company plans to launch and connect the first habitable module to the ISS by 2024, assuming Congress provides the funding needed to extend the life of the space station to 2028.
“We need the extension of the ISS, because we will not be ready with these [independent] destinations by 2024, ”said McAlister.
The House of Representatives’ Science, Space and Technology Committee is holding a hearing on the ISS extension on Tuesday, with expected testimony from NASA ISS Director Robyn Gatens of the NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and Nanoracks CEO Jeff Manber.
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