The International Space Station, with its many modules, four sets of solar arrays, and numerous visitors from around the world, has been an iconic presence in the night sky since the late 1990s and a symbol of global cooperation and space science. But it can’t last forever.
In 2019, small cracks and air leaks appeared in the Russian-built Zarya module, the oldest piece of the station. Orbiting bits of space junk have threatened the spacecraft, too. As China assembles its own space station—whose core module, Tianhe, launched this April—NASA is developing plans for a successor to the aging ISS. Last week, the agency signed agreements with three US-based companies—Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman—to design space stations that would combine scientific and commercial activities.
The agency is investing some $416 million combined in the three companies to develop their designs, which include ISS-like modules or inflatable habitats. All would have to allow for future additional modules to be docked, Lego-style. NASA’s financial contribution amounts to less than 40 percent of the total funding for the detailed designs, with the rest coming from private sources. Ultimately, the agency will choose only one of these plans to build.
“This is really the beginning of a new era. We did commercial crew, commercial cargo, and now commercial space stations. This is the next big step,” says Marshall Smith, senior vice president of space systems at Nanoracks and a former deputy associate administrator at NASA.
NASA officials hope the ISS will continue operating at least until the late 2020s, when the first modules of the new station could launch. They’re planning for a two-phase process. Until 2025, these companies will flesh out their blueprints in coordination with the space agency. Then in the second phase, NASA officials will choose one of the company’s plans as the design they’ll move forward with. Within two or three years, that company will launch its first module, which will provide accommodations for at least two astronauts to conduct research and experiments.
This will allow for a “seamless transition” from the ISS, Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial low-Earth orbit development program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said at a press conference on Thursday. “This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost to enable the agency to focus on its Artemis missions to the moon and on to Mars.”
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
Northrop Grumman is the most established company of the trio receiving awards; it dates back to the 1930s and has a longstanding relationship with NASA. Its proposal features a space station that appears most similar to the ISS, and it would use technologies and hardware that are mostly already available. It includes a cylindrical module, similar to the Habitation and Logistics Outpost, or HALO, which the company is already developing for NASA’s planned Gateway space station that will orbit the moon. It will also include a larger version of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft, which has already been deployed multiple times to transport supplies to the ISS.
“We are trying to give NASA the option of something very reliable, something technically sound, and something we can do very quickly,” says Rick Mastracchio, the company’s director of business development for human exploration.
Nanoracks’s proposed Starlab station will look completely different. Its large, inflatable habitat would have about a third the amount of pressurized cabin space as the ISS, and along with a science lab, docking port, power and propulsion element, and robotic arm, it could be propelled into orbit on a single launch. The Houston-based company is collaborating with Voyager Space (Nanoracks’s majority shareholder) and Lockheed Martin.
While inflatable habitats are newer than metallic ones, the technology has existed for decades. Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable BEAM module has been docked at the ISS since 2016. The materials Nanoracks’s habitat is made from are proprietary, but they’re designed to offer protection from space radiation and debris, which continue to pose hazards, Smith says. “With inflatable technology, there’s multiple layers it has to go through, layers that absorb the energy, like a Kevlar vest,” Smith says.
Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station, which is in development with Sierra Space, includes both kinds of technologies: metallic core and science modules, as well as an inflatable habitat called LIFE. The architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” to support a variety of activities.
Most PopularThe End of Airbnb in New YorkBusiness
At any of these space stations, NASA will be the “anchor tenant,” Mastracchio says. But as the commercial space travel market grows, the station will host other visitors, which could include those coming for tourism, sports, entertainment, and advertising. In fact, how the ISS’s successor takes shape and which additional modules get prioritized for development could depend on market forces. In practice, that could initially create competition for the limited space available: Astronauts from the US, Europe, Russia, Japan, and Canada could end up vying for legroom and space for their research-focused experiments while private customers do the same for their activities.
But as the station is built up over time, different kinds of activities will be spread out through the various modules, so no one’s sleeping in the lab, and tourists who just want to enjoy the view and zero-G life won’t be in the way of the astronauts. “The easiest thing to imagine is essentially a dormitory, where all the habitation functions, like exercising and eating and socializing and sleeping, occur separately from laboratory functions or manufacturing functions,” Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin, said at the press conference.
But to have the first stages of a new space station in orbit by the late 2020s, NASA and its commercial partners have their work cut out for them. “NASA faces significant challenges with fully executing the plan in time to meet its 2028 goal and avoid a gap in availability of a low-Earth orbit destination,” states the agency’s Office of Inspector General report, published on November 30. The ISS costs about a third of NASA’s annual human spaceflight budget. It’s currently slated for retirement in 2024, but agency officials expect that date to be extended until 2030. In the meantime, astronauts will have to monitor cracks and leaks in hopes that the ISS remains safe until new modules start coming up.
These three new contracts fall under NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program. Axiom Space’s modules, designed for research and other applications, do as well. These include a habitation module, planned for launch in the second half of 2024, and lab and observatory modules. They’re designed to connect to the ISS, and when the station finally retires they’ll detach and become a free-flying commercial station.
Ultimately, NASA’s competition could yield more than one winner, Jeffrey Manber, president of international and space stations for Voyager Space and chair of the board at Nanoracks, argued at the press conference: “At the end of this decade, there will be multiple privately owned space stations, maybe in different orbits.”
More Great WIRED Stories📩 The latest on tech, science, and more: Get our newsletters!At the end of the world, it’s hyperobjects all the way downCars are going electric. What happens to used batteries?Finally, a practical use for nuclear fusionThe metaverse is simply Big Tech, but biggerAnalog gifts for people who need a digital detox👁️ Explore AI like never before with our new database💻 Upgrade your work game with our Gear team’s favorite laptops, keyboards, typing alternatives, and noise-canceling headphones