The National Aeronautics and Space Administration last year marked two decades of astronauts continuously onboard the International Space Station. But, as the floating research laboratory ages, the space agency is turning to private companies to build and deploy new free flying habitats in low Earth orbit.
NASA this past week unveiled the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) project, with plans to award up to $400 million in total to as many as four companies in the third quarter of 2021 to begin development on private space stations.
The agency is seeking to replicate the success of its Commercial Cargo and Commercial Crew programs. Those programs saw three companies take over for NASA as its means of sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
NASA commercial LEO director Phil McAlister said he thinks about the domain of low Earth orbit as having three main activities: “Cargo transportation, crew transportation, and destinations.” NASA has transferred over responsibility of the former two activities to private companies, with the agency paying SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to send cargo spacecraft to the ISS, as well as SpaceX and Boeing to launch astronauts. McAlister highlighted that previously, NASA had full ownership of all three activities.
“If it were to always remain that way, our aspirations in low Earth orbit would always be limited by the size of NASA’s budget,” McAlister said in a briefing on Tuesday. “By bringing the private sector into these sections and into these areas, as suppliers and users, you expand the pot, and you have more people in low Earth orbit.”
The potential cost savings of NASA being a user of space stations, rather than an owner and operator, is a key motivator for the CLD program. The International Space Station costs NASA about $4 billion a year to operate. Moreover, the ISS cost a total of $150 billion to develop and build, with NASA picking up most of that bill while Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada each contributed.
NASA last year estimated that the Commercial Crew program alone is estimated to have saved the agency between $20 billion and $30 billion, while funding development of two spacecraft, rather than just one. While Boeing has yet to complete development testing, suffering an extended setback after its first uncrewed Starliner capsule launch in December 2019 failed due to multiple anomalies, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft is now flying NASA astronauts operationally.
Another motivator for beginning the CLD program is the ISS’s aging hardware, as much of the space station’s core structures were manufactured in the 1990s and the final pressurized structure was added in 2011. Last year Russian cosmonauts worked to patch a small air leak in a space station module.
“The ISS is an amazing system but, unfortunately, it won’t last forever,” McAlister said. “It could experience an unrecoverable anomaly at any time.”
NASA sees the CLD program as a way to have multiple companies develop and build new habitats in the next few years, so that the agency has an overlap period before the ISS is retired. McAlister noted that, separate from the CLD program, NASA awarded spaceflight specialist Axiom Space with an $140 million contract to build modules to add to the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to detach its modules and turn it into a free-flying space station.
“We’re making progress there and very pleased about that,” McAlister said. “We would like to have competition in the supply area, which is why we’re doing [CLD]. It’s always been part of our plan to both attach modules as well as have free fliers.”
An Axiom spokesperson, in a statement to CNBC, said that the company “broadly supports NASA’s vision of a multifaceted economy in LEO.”
“We are raising private funding to design and develop our world’s-first commercial destination to demonstrate that truly commercial leadership can advance the LEO economy. Constructing Axiom Station initially as an extension of the International Space Station will expand the work that can be done on-station in the near-term and best enable a timely and seamless transition when the ISS reaches the end of its life,” Axiom said.
A NASA list of organizations registered for the briefing revealed a wide variety of aerospace and space companies, including: Airbus U.S., Blue Origin, Boeing, Collins Aerospace, Firefly Aerospace, General Dynamics, ispace, Lockheed Martin, Moog, Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Redwire Space, RUAG Space, Sierra Nevada Corporation, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit, Voyager Space Holdings, and York Space Systems.
Already, one of those companies announced that it will soon unveil its plan for a free-flying space station. Sierra Nevada Corporation, or SNC, said it will host a virtual press conference on March 31 to reveal the design of the “SNC Space Station.”
NASA will release a final announcement for CLD proposals in May, with the first phase of funding awards expected between October and December. NASA’s Johnson Space Center will manage the CLD program through its commercial LEO development office.