How Blue Origin and other commercial space stations will take NASA to Mars


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It’s official: the future of low earth orbit is commercial, at least as far as NASA is concerned.

On December 2, the space agency announced three contracts with private companies worth $ 415.6 million to develop space stations built and operated by the private sector. A contract with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for his Orbital Reef “mixed-use space activity park” concept, a contract with the Nanoracks four astronaut capacity proposal and a contract with Northrop Grumman’s idea for a “ modular destination ”in low earth orbit (LEO).

NASA designed the contracts for the initial development, and it’s not yet clear whether all three concepts will fly successfully, but it’s clear something will: As NASA keeps a nervous eye on an aging International Space Station and the other on the Moon and Mars, coming out of the activity of the space station.

“NASA seeks to be a key tenant, rather than NASA owning the equipment and the operator” Laura Forczyk, founder of the space consulting firm Astralytical, tells Reverse.

However, how and when NASA and its business partners achieve this goal could dictate the future of space operations for a long time to come.

“For so long this has been the domain of science fiction, private companies operating space stations,” Forczyk said. “Now this is becoming a reality, and we want to understand what that reality looks like, and what is real and what is not. “

“So, are we going to have hotels in space?” We don’t know, but I can’t wait to find out.

Why is NASA replacing the ISS?

As recent air leaks and congressional funding debates have shown, the ISS will not live forever. While NASA has officially secured funding for the ISS until 2028, the space station – which has been permanently inhabited for over 20 years – is not expected to live beyond the current decade.

“Around 2030, or so, that’s when NASA decided it needed to move away from the International Space Station and start thinking about desorbit plans and end of life,” Froczyk said.

At the same time, NASA will still need one or more LEO outposts until the 2030s, she says. Such facilities will be vital in preparing astronauts, the technologies and procedures necessary to send astronauts to Mars. NASA estimates that it needs to conduct around 200 LEO surveys per year, but NASA cannot afford to build and operate another ISS, return to the moon, and go to deep space at the same time. time.

“What we are seeing is that NASA is saying we have to free up funds to continue the Artemis program because they have received little money to do a lot of things,” Forczyk said. “ISS has been a resounding success, but also extremely expensive, expensive to build and expensive to operate. It was never meant to be profitable.

Just as NASA ended the costly and troubled Space Shuttle program and now contracts with SpaceX to transport crew and cargo to and from the ISS through the Commercial Crew program, the LEO Destinations program will replace the ISS and will allow NASA to purchase the space station services it needs. à la carte.

“If there are multiple space stations in low earth orbit, they could serve different purposes at different times,” Forczyk explains. “It may be that one is geared towards human habitation, maybe one is more geared towards your making, and maybe one more for the life sciences.”

Partner exchange— Russia, its Russia, and its Roscosmos space agency have been key ISS partners since President Bill Clinton invited them to join the program in 1993. But recently there have been signs that the partnership is in trouble.

In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin to have a reference to that Russia could withdraw from the ISS by 2025. Then, in June, Roscosmos chief executive Dmitry Rogozin said his agency would withdraw from the ISS on political sanctions imposed on Russia, although he later backed down, tell CNN that in the case of the ISS, “divorce is not possible”.

Yet, says Forczyk, when you add growing tensions between Russia and the rest of the world over Russian aggression against Ukraine and a recent anti-satellite missile test that created debris endangering the astronauts from many countries on the ISS and the Chinese space station, “We are unlikely to see a continuation of the strong partnership that NASA has enjoyed with Russia over the past ten or twenty years . “

Roscosmos, meanwhile, has been plagued by corruption scandals on the ground and technical glitches in the sky – over the summer, a booster from the last Russian module attached to the ISS failed, shaking the whole station. NASA may be more than ready to stop running a space station as a costly form of diplomacy with an increasingly hostile nation and turn to private industry to provide needed services without drama.

What are the three new models of space stations?

While the technical details of the space station’s designs are still relatively scarce, we have an idea of ​​what each company has come up with for NASA.

Blue origin – Blue Origin came up with a concept it calls Orbital Reef, which NASA gave the company $ 130 million to grow further. Comprised of multiple modules, Blue Origin says the base configuration will support 10 people in more than 2,700 cubic feet of space, which can be rented for everything from plant biology experiments to space tourism ventures. The company hopes to launch by the end of the 2020s.

Artist’s illustration of the central configuration of the Origin Orbital Reef blue space station. Orbital Reef

Nanoracks – Dubbed Starlab, Nanoracks’ $ 160 million proposal will focus on scientific research, housing the George Washington Carver Science Park, and include laboratories for biology, plant habitat, materials science and physical science. Designed for continuous occupancy by up to four astronauts, Starlab will offer just over 1,100 cubic feet of internal capacity in its inflatable habitat. Nanoracks claims the space station will be launched on a single flight in 2027.

The concept of the Nanoracks Starlab commercial space station. Nanoracks

Northrop Grumman – The venerable defense contractor’s $ 125.6 million space station proposal will pair with Northrup Grumman’s existing Cygnus spacecraft, which currently carries cargo to the ISS. Without a catchy name, this “commercial free-flight” space station will initially accommodate a crew of four, later expandable to eight, and will operate for approximately 15 years.

The concept of the Northrop Grumman free-flight commercial space stationNorthrop Grumman

Timeline of the commercial space station

The first phase of the LEO Destinations program and the first contracts just awarded will run until 2025.

In the second phase, NASA will certify the competition’s designs for human habitation and, if all goes well, begin purchasing services from newly launched, certified and operational commercial space stations.

And there is a bit of a rush because building safe and efficient space stations will take some time, and the ISS does not have much left. If 2030 comes and goes without an ISS alternative, NASA could find itself in a tough spot – trying to bridge a gap between a retired asset and the start of commercial services.

“We had this gap when we relied on the Russians between the end of the Space Shuttle and the start of SpaceX Crew Dragon,” says Forczyk. “There was a gap of several years where we had to rely on the Russians to transport the Americans to the space station, and it was embarrassing.”

Running out of time on the ISS could be more than embarrassing. With a strained space relationship with Russia, to say the least, and China operating its own space station – in part because the US Congress in 2011 denied them access to the ISS – NASA has nowhere else to go. to turn if space companies fail to deliver.

“We literally have no other options but to invest in the future with commercial space stations to make sure we don’t have a capacity gap,” Forczyk said.

How are commercial space stations connected to Lunar Gateway?

Lunar Gateway, a small space station meant to orbit the moon and serve as a middle station for NASA’s Artemis missions to the lunar surface, is a space station, yes. But the similarities with the three new commercial space station proposals end there for the most part.

“I don’t see this equivalent to what’s happening now with low earth orbit,” Forczyk said. “That’s not to say that there can’t be commercial lunar base stations in the future. But for now, Lunar Gateway is envisioned as a much more traditional government asset, with government contractors building it. “

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