NASA intends to decommission the International Space Station by the end of this decade, so it is turning to private corporations to build new space stations in orbit, saving more than $1 billion each year in the process. NASA announced the Commercial LEO Destinations project earlier this year, with intentions to award up to $400 million in contracts to a maximum of four companies to start developing private space stations.
The International Space Station
The International Space Station has been around for more than 20 years, and costs about $4 billion a year to operate and maintain. It makes sense at this point for NASA to want to discontinue it and instead turn it into a private venture.
The space station will be operating till 2024, with a potential extension for 2028, but after that, according to the company, NASA wants “to be just one of many users instead of the primary sponsor and infrastructure supporter for stations in low Earth orbit.”
NASA is currently reviewing the proposals, and Philip McAlister, the Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Division for Human Exploration and Operations, stated that the agency hopes to reveal the contract winners for the private takeover “before the end of the year,” though he is pushing for sooner.
The dozen or so ideas came from a “broad range of organizations,” according to McAlister, ranging from start-ups to established aerospace corporations.
Space, the final frontier
Interested parties included Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin when NASA convened an industry briefing for corporate representatives in March.
Aside from cost savings, McAlister stated that NASA “will not require anything near as huge and capable” as the ISS in the future. Rather than building and owning hardware, NASA is increasingly relying on public-private partnerships to achieve its space goals. Over the last decade, the agency has had significant success with this paradigm, with cargo and crew services provided by rockets manufactured by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
Last year, NASA calculated that the Commercial Crew program alone saved the agency $20 billion to $30 billion while funding the development of two spacecraft instead of just one. The Commercial Crew program serves as a model for the Commercial LEO Destinations initiative, as NASA initially awarded contracts to five businesses before limiting it down to two through subsequent awards.
NASA also sees the high level of interest as an indication that the American space industry is “technically and financially capable of developing commercial space destinations,” which would reduce the agency’s “financial commitments” to science and research in space, according to McAlister.
In related news, flying cars are coming soon.
Photo via NASA