NASA named the three companies it has chosen to create designs for the successor to the International Space Station. The three companies will be given funding from the space agency “to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space.”
NASA has given Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin $130 million, Nanoracks LLC $160 million, and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation $125.6 million. NASA says that these awards constitute the first phase in its plan to establish the ISS’s replacement. The companies will have the next four years to “formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs.”
Blue Origin has openly expressed its intentions to build a space station prior to being selected by NASA. The company and its partner Sierra Space announced its place to create a space station named Orbital Reef back in October. Orbital Reef is conceived as being a multipurpose space station facilitation commercial activity alongside government and research use. Blue Origin said it plans to provide transportation between the space station and Earth. Orbital Reef is anticipated to open before 2030.
The next space station could be fully commercial
While Orbital Reef will be split across various sectors, Nanoracks LLC has decided to design a purely commercial space station. While the commercialization of space in the form of space travel and potential tourism is experiencing its own “space race,” commercializing a space station, which has traditionally been used by governments and researchers for non-profit-driven motives, is a radically new proposition.
The notion steps away from NASA’s tradition with the ISS, the agency is searching for the next generation of our civilization’s relationship to space, so completely commercializing the space station may help bridge that gap for our society.
The primary clients for a fully commercial space station would still be those working in research, as Nanorack’s Starlab will have “a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and material research lab, and an open area workbench.”
The last company, Northrop Grumman, is working on a space station that is centered chiefly on design. The station will be modular, allowing it to reconfigure itself and add on new features. Northrop Grumman hopes to add on “facilities capable of artificial gravity” to allow astronauts to move as they normally would on Earth within the space station.
NASA has decided to shift away from operating the International Space Station in order to focus on other areas of interest. The space agency has said that it will be “one of the many customers in low-Earth orbit,” referring to the space station’s orbit outside of Earth’s but proximate to it. This means that the space agency sees a benefit to a new, private space station for the government’s own work in space and that it could even be less expensive.