The ISS, the international space station with many modules, four sets of solar cells and which has welcomed many tourists from all over the world to visit, has long become a symbol of existence in the night sky of the Earth. earth since the late 1990s. It is also a symbol of global cooperation and space science. But it cannot last forever.
In 2019, small cracks and air leaks appeared in the Russian-built Zarya module, the station’s oldest part. Orbiting space junk has also threatened this place. And when China decided to assemble its own space station, with the launch of its core module, Tianhe, this past April, the US couldn’t just stand by. And NASA, the US Aeronautics and Space Administration, is developing plans for a successor to the ISS. Last week, the agency signed an agreement with three US-based companies – Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman – to design space stations that would allow a combination of scientific and commercial activities.
The agency is investing a combined $416 million in all three companies to develop their designs, including ISS-like modules or an inflatable habitat. All will have to allow the mounting of additional modules in the future, Lego style. NASA’s financial contribution accounts for less than 40% of the total detailed design funding, and the remainder will come from private sources. Ultimately, NASA will only choose one of these plans to build.
“This is truly the beginning of a new era. We have developed commercial crews, commercial freighters and now commercial space stations. This will be the next important step.” Marshall Smith, senior vice president of space systems at Nanoracks and a former NASA deputy administrator.
NASA officials expect the ISS to continue operating at least until the late 2020s, when the first modules of the new station can launch. They are planning a two-stage process. In the first phase to 2025, these companies will release their designs in coordination with the space agency. Then, in a second phase, NASA officials will select one of the company’s plans as the designer to proceed with construction. Within two or three years, that company will launch its first module, which will house at least two astronauts to conduct research and testing.
This will allow for a “seamless transition” from the ISS, said Angela Hart, NASA’s commercial low-Earth orbital development program manager at Johnson Space Center in Houston. “This strategy will provide the services the government needs at a lower cost to allow the agency to focus on missions like to the moon and Mars.”
Northrop Grumman is the oldest of the three, having been on the market since the 1930s and having a long relationship with NASA. The company’s proposal is a space station that looks quite similar to the ISS and it will use technologies and hardware that are already available. It includes a cylindrical module, similar to the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (aka HALO), which the company is developing for the Gateway space station, which will orbit the moon as planned by NASA. It will also include a larger version of the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which has been deployed several times to deliver supplies to the ISS.
Rick Mastracchio, the company’s director of business development, said: “We’re trying to give NASA the option of something very reliable, technically sound, and something we can do very quickly.”
Nanoracks’ proposal is an inflatable Starlab station. It’s a large habitat, with about a third of the space in a pressurized cabin as the ISS, along with a science lab, docking ports, propulsion and engine elements, robotic arms, and The whole thing can be propelled into orbit with just one launch. The Houston-based company is working with Voyager Space (the main shareholder of Nanoracks) and Lockheed Martin.
While inflatable habitat technology is newer than metal habitats, the technology has been around for decades. Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable BEAM module has been attached to the ISS since 2016. The materials the Nanoracks habitat is made of are proprietary, designed to protect from space debris. Basically, you can temporarily understand that inflatable technology will create many layers of protection and they will absorb energy, like a bulletproof vest against external forces.
Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station, being developed with Sierra Space, includes both types of technology: a metal core and a science module, as well as an inflatable habitat called LIFE . The architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that can support a variety of activities.
And at any space station, NASA will be the “primary tenant”. But, as the commercial space travel market grows, the station will welcome other visitors, which may include those who come for tourism, sports, entertainment and promotional purposes.
In fact, how the successor to the ISS will shape up and which additional modules are prioritized for development will likely depend on these market factors.
And that can create competition for limited space at first. For example, astronauts from the US, Europe, Russia, Japan and Canada will have to scramble for legroom and space for their research-focused experiments. Meanwhile, private clients do the same for their operations.
But as the station is fully built over time, different types of activities will be spread across different modules. So no one will sleep in the lab, and tourists who just want to see the sights won’t appear on the astronauts’ path.
“The easiest thing to imagine would be basically a dormitory, where all living functions such as exercising, eating, communicating and sleeping, take place separately from laboratory functions. or production function”, Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said.
But getting the first stages of a new space station in orbit by the late 2020s, NASA and their commercial partners will face significant challenges. The ISS currently costs about a third of NASA’s annual space budget. It is currently slated to retire in 2024, but NASA officials expect that date to be extended to 2030. In the meantime, astronauts will have to watch for cracks and leaks, with hopefully the ISS stays safe until new modules start to appear.
Besides, a number of other units such as Axiom Space are also designing for the future space station model. These include a settlement module, scheduled to launch in the second half of 2024, and laboratory and observatory modules. They are designed to be docked with the ISS, and when the station stops working, they will detach and become a free-flying commercial space station.
In the end, the NASA competition could yield more than one winner. “By the end of this decade, there will be many privately owned space stations, possibly in different orbits,” Jeffrey Manber, chairman of the board of directors at Nanoracks, said.