On Thursday afternoon, NASA announced that it had awarded three different teams, each involving multiple companies, more than $100 million apiece to support the design and early development of private space stations in low Earth orbit.
This represents a big step toward the space agency’s plan to maintain a permanent presence in space even after the aging International Space Station, which can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030, reaches the end of its life. NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” by sending its astronauts to one or more private stations in orbit starting in the second half of the 2020s.
The total estimated award amount for all three funded Space Act Agreements is $415.6 million. The individual award amounts, with links to each concept, are:
- Blue Origin, $130 million, leading a team including Sierra Space, Boeing, and Redwire Space
- Nanoracks, $160 million, leading a team including Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space
- Northrop Grumman, $125.6 million, leading a team including Dynetics
Each of these space station concepts is a “free flyer” in the sense of launching independently of any other facility. Previously, in February 2020, as part of a separate competitive procurement process, NASA awarded Axiom Space a $140 million contract to develop a habitable commercial module for the International Space Station. The award gives Axiom the right to attach its module to the station’s Node 2 forward point.
At this stage, Axiom would appear to have some advantages in the competition for future NASA private station awards. In addition to providing the benefit of power, breathing air, and crew time through its initial attachment to the space station, Axiom is ahead in the design and construction of its facility. Axiom completed the cumbersome “preliminary design review” for its station in September, a process the free-flying stations are unlikely to finish before 2025.
But now, the “free flyer” competitors have some funding to try to catch up.
A diversity of solutions
With these grants, NASA has selected a mix of large and small US companies and old and new players in low Earth orbit.
“We have a very diverse group of companies in terms of age, size, and business strategy,” Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight, said during a call with the media after the awards were announced. “I think this diversity will make NASA’s strategy for commercial destinations very robust, and it will ensure a healthy competition in the days ahead.”
Combined, these awards give NASA four different potential private approaches to pursue. McAlister said the goal is for NASA to provide less than 40 percent of the costs to design, develop, and launch these facilities, with private industry paying the remaining 60 percent or more. In turn, the private stations will be able to host other governmental customers, businesses, and space tourism.
While it may seem like one or more of these approaches should work, NASA faces some serious questions in making this program a reality.
Will Congress fund it?
The prevailing plan from Congress for some time has been to fly the International Space Station for as long as possible—the program has provided benefits across the country and is a reliable source of jobs at the major NASA field centers in Texas, Alabama, and Florida.
Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine first began to really grapple with the idea of a commercial replacement in 2019, but Congress was slow to respond. In the president’s budget requests for fiscal year 2020 and 2021, NASA asked for $150 million, but Congress appropriated only $15 million. For the fiscal year 2022 budget, which is not yet approved, NASA asked for $101 million. The US House proposal provided $45 million, and the Senate agreed to NASA’s full request. In future budgets, NASA has asked for $186.1 million a year.
So NASA has now “awarded” more than $550 million for private space stations, but Congress has yet to provide the funding for any of these grants. Asked what would happen if NASA does not receive the funding it needs for these stations, McAlister said the program would have to slow down.
“We could re-phase some of the milestones to accommodate reduced levels of funding,” he said. “I hope not to have to do that. But if we get the president’s full budget requests, we should be fine.”