Recently, former NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineBill Nye promotes infrastructure, social spending bills with Biden NASA can facilitate the commercial space station race SpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission MORE testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the need, among other things, to develop commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station (ISS) when that orbiting laboratory is due to retire at the end of this decade. He stated, “It is absolutely critical that Congress fund America’s replacement for the International Space Station, which has had humans on board for over 20 years. The Chinese Space Station is on orbit, demonstrating great progress, and attracting international partners. Humanity is only at the beginning of understanding the immense economic, technological, and medicinal value of microgravity, and America is at risk of ceding these capabilities to our greatest competitor.”
Bridenstine suggested that Congress fund LEO space commercialization efforts at $2 billion a year. This figure is over and above other NASA priorities, such as the Artemis return to the moon program. Thus far, neither the Biden administration nor Congress have been that generous. The administration request for NASA included just $101 million to develop a commercial space station. The final appropriations bill is still pending.
Nevertheless, Ars Technica reports that at least three candidates for a commercial successor to the International Space Station exist, with more expected to follow.
Axiom Space already has plans to take private astronauts to the ISS using SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for brief stays. It also plans to attach a private module to the orbiting laboratory in 2024. More modules will follow with plans to detach the Axiom modules to create its own commercial space station around 2028.
Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin have a concept called Starlab, which will include, “a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm, and a state-of-the-art laboratory for science, research, and manufacturing.” Starlab is scheduled to be operational in 2027.
Blue Origin and Sierra Space offered a most intriguing entry called “Orbital Reef.” The commercial space station will include “large core, habitat, and science modules.” The approach seems to resemble that of the Soviet Mir or the current Chinese space station Tiangong. The Orbital Reef depends on Blue Origin getting the New Glenn orbital rocket functioning. Boeing, another partner in the effort, will apparently provide resupply and crew rotation services using its much-delayed Starliner commercial crew spacecraft. Sierra Space could also use its Sierra Nevada space plane, currently in development, for the same purpose.
The three proposals are likely not the only ones that will be put forward. SpaceX, for example, could develop a space station that could be delivered in one piece aboard its Starship rocket. Such a facility could be easily serviced by the company’s Crew Dragon.
Several things must happen before commercial space stations become a reality. First, Congress would have to follow Bridenstine’s lead and appropriate significant money toward making NASA a core customer of the private orbiting facilities. Lawmakers already have the successful model of COTS and Commercial Crew, with the commercially developed Human Landing System as successes for a public-private partnership to commercialize low Earth orbit.
Next, the private companies have to make the case that, in addition to NASA participation, they can attract other customers for the commercial space stations. Space tourism and microgravity manufacturing are among the possible businesses that could make these facilities turn a profit.
The commercial space station effort should not be seen as competing with the Artemis program. The two efforts are linked. Lunar mining efforts can yield raw materials that could be used by orbiting manufacturing facilities to create products, using microgravity, that would be impossible to make in Earth’s gravity well. A space-based supply chain would consist of raw materials being shipped from the moon to LEO and then finished products being shipped to Earth.
The partnership between NASA and commercial companies to create private space stations should be a win-win for both sides. NASA could continue to access low-Earth orbit to conduct research and development that has been so successful on the International Space Station. The commercial companies could create brand new industries in low Earth orbit. Space can become not just a frontier where a few astronauts visit from time to time, but a venue of human activity that can benefit the Earth in ways that can be only partly imagined.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.