For the future, NASA is banking on private space stations

In anticipation of the International Space Station’s future retirement, NASA announced Thursday that it has signed contracts with three companies to help develop private space stations, one step closer to the commercialization of space.

The three companies are Blue Origin, NanoRacks and Northrop Grumman, who will be awarded $130, 160 and $125.6 million respectively.

The company Axiom Space had already won a similar contract worth $140 million last year.

“We are working with American companies to develop space sites where people can go, where they can live and work,” NASA boss Bill Nelson said in a statement.

NASA strongly encourages the privatization of low orbit to save money and focus on more distant exploration missions to the Moon and Mars.

The future of the International Space Station (ISS) is officially confirmed by 2024 and NASA has confirmed that it can be technically operational by 2028. Bill Nelson has spoken in favor of its extension until 2030.

The goal then is for the private stations to end current international cooperation on the ISS, particularly with Russia.

These contracts “will help the United States ensure a continued human presence in low orbit,” Phil McAllister, director of commercial flights for NASA, said at a news conference. “A hole (in this presence) would be harmful.”

The US space agency wants to be able to hire the services of private companies for its needs in the future, without funding the station’s operating costs.

They estimate that they will need to be able to send two consecutive astronauts into orbit and be able to conduct about 200 experiments per year.

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The Blue Origin station developed with Sierra Space is called Orbital Reef. It should be able to accommodate up to 10 people and serve a variety of actors: tourists, business or public actors.

The NanoRacks, called Starlab, aims to take-off in 2027.

Northrop Grumman is still working on a name, but is also planning areas in science or tourism.

Axiom’s project is a little different: a module must first be attached to the ISS before the station can detach from it to be independent.

No company has estimated the cost of developing these stations. But Blue Origin’s Brent Sherwood said, “The amount NASA invested today to launch this program is less than what is needed.”

The agency’s contribution to these projects does not exceed 40% of the total investment amount, Phil McAllister said.

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