NASA evaluating private space station proposals for ISS replacement

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to retire the International Space Station by the top of this decade, so the U.S. space company is popping to private firms to construct new space stations in orbit – and expects to save lots of greater than $1 billion yearly consequently.

NASA earlier this 12 months unveiled the Commercial LEO Destinations mission, with plans to award as much as $400 million in whole contracts to as many as 4 firms to start growth on private space stations.

In response to NASA's request, director of economic spaceflight Phil McAlister instructed CNBC that the company "received roughly about a dozen proposals" from a wide range of firms for contracts beneath the mission.

"We got an incredibly strong response from industry to our announcement for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go directly to orbit," McAlister stated. "I can't remember the last time we got that many proposals [in response] to a [human spaceflight] contract announcement."

The ISS is greater than 20 years previous and prices NASA about $4 billion a 12 months to function. The space station is accredited to function via the top of 2024, with a possible lifespan extension to the top of 2028. But, shifting ahead, McAlister says that NASA desires "to be just one of many users instead of the primary sponsor and infrastructure supporter" for stations in low Earth orbit.

"This strong industry response shows that our plan to retire the International Space Station in the latter part of this decade and transition to commercial space destinations is a viable, strong plan," McAlister stated.

"We are making tangible progress on developing commercial space destinations where people can work, play, and live," McAlister added.

NASA is now evaluating the proposals, and McAlister stated the company hopes to announce the contract winners "before the end of the year," though he’s "pushing for earlier." McAlister famous that the dozen or so proposals got here from a "diverse group of companies," starting from start-ups to massive aerospace firms. When NASA hosted an business briefing for firm officers in March, events included recognizable names like Elon Musk's SpaceX, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin.

In addition to value financial savings, McAlister emphasised that NASA "will not need anything near as big and as capable" because the ISS shifting ahead. He stated the private space stations "could be very large, but NASA will only be paying for the part that we need."

"We need to right size our [low Earth orbit] infrastructure," McAlister stated.

The public-private mannequin

SpaceX's Crew Dragon Endeavour seen docked with the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.NASA

Rather than construct and personal {hardware} itself, NASA has more and more turned to public-private partnerships as a approach to obtain its objectives in space. The company has had nice success via this mannequin prior to now decade, with cargo and crew companies offered by way of autos constructed by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.

NASA final 12 months estimated that the Commercial Crew program alone saved the company between $20 billion and $30 billion, whereas funding growth for two spacecraft, somewhat than only one. While Boeing has but to finish growth testing – struggling an prolonged setback after its first uncrewed Starliner capsule launch in December 2019 failed on account of a number of anomalies – SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft has flown 10 astronauts to the ISS for NASA, in addition to 4 private astronauts to orbit final week.

The company doesn’t anticipate to foot your complete invoice for serving to firms construct new space stations, with McAlister saying "the strategy has to work for both the government and the private sector" from an funding perspective.

"You have to find that sweet spot in terms of sharing resources, sharing risks, sharing responsibilities, so that both parties can benefit," McAlister stated.

"It was explicitly part of the original announcement for proposals that we expected cost sharing," he added. "Going forward, we do not anticipate paying for the entire commercial destinations. We don't think that's appropriate, as the companies are going to own the intellectual property and they're going to be able to sell that capability to non-NASA customers."

The Commercial Crew program serves as a information for the Commercial LEO Destinations mission, as initially NASA awarded 5 firms with Commercial Crew contracts earlier than steadily narrowing down to 2 via later awards.

"When you're this early, it makes a lot of sense to have competitors," McAlister stated.

NASA additionally perceives the robust curiosity from firms as a sign that the U.S. space business "is technically and financially capable of building commercial space destinations," McAlister stated, which might lower the company's "financial commitments" to science and analysis in orbit.

"Then we can use that savings – that we project to be on the order of a billion to a billion-and-a-half dollars [annually] – for our deep space missions and aspirations," he stated.

Working with Axiom already

A window for the Axiom Earth Observatory module seen throughout manufacturing.Axiom Space

NASA has already begun funding the ambitions of 1 firm beneath a separate however associated contract, having awarded Axiom Space with a $140 million to construct modules that can hook up with the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to detach its modules and switch it right into a free-flying space station.

Axiom has begun manufacturing on these modules, together with the large home windows that can make up an remark deck. The firm plans to launch and join the primary liveable module to the ISS by 2024, beneath the idea that Congress gives the required funding to increase the space station's life to 2028.

"We need the ISS extension, because we are not going to be ready with these [independent] destinations by 2024," McAlister stated.

The House of Representatives' Science, Space, and Technology committee is internet hosting a listening to on ISS extension on Tuesday, with anticipated testimony from NASA's ISS director Robyn Gatens, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, and Nanoracks CEO Jeff Manber.

Here's what you must know concerning the billionaire space raceSquawk Box

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