An artist’s illustration of the Axiom Module attached to the International Space Station.
NASA plans to retire the International Space Station by the end of this decade, so the U.S. space agency is turning to private companies to build new space stations in orbit — and that results in more than $1 billion in savings annually. expected to do.
NASA unveiled the Commercial LEO Destination Project earlier this year, which plans to award up to $400 million in total contracts to four companies to begin development of private space stations.
In response to NASA’s request, its director of commercial spacecraft, Phil McAllister, told CNBC that the agency “received about a dozen offers” from various companies for contracts under the project.
“We got an incredibly strong response from the industry for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go straight into orbit,” McAllister said. “I can’t remember the last time we got so many offers [in response] to do [human spaceflight] Announcement of contract.”
The ISS is over 20 years old and costs NASA about $4 billion per year to operate. The space station is approved to operate until the end of 2024, with a possible lifetime extension through the end of 2028. But, going forward, McAllister says that NASA wants to be “one of many users rather than the primary sponsor and infrastructure supporter” for stations in low Earth orbit.
“This strong industry response suggests that retiring the International Space Station and transitioning to commercial space sites is a viable, robust plan in the latter part of this decade,” McAllister said.
“We are making solid progress on developing commercial space sites where people can work, play and live,” McAllister said.
NASA is now evaluating proposals, and McAllister said the agency hopes to announce contract winners “before the end of the year,” though he’s “pushing for an earlier one.” McAlister noted that the dozen or so proposals came from a “diverse group of companies,” ranging from start-ups to large aerospace corporations. When NASA hosted an industry briefing for company executives in March, interested parties included recognizable names like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Airbus, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
In addition to the cost savings, McAllister emphasized that NASA “will not need anything as big and capable as it is” as the ISS progresses. He added that private space stations “may be very large, but NASA will only pay for the part that we need.”
“We need to get our shape right [low Earth orbit] infrastructure,” McAllister said.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavor docks with the International Space Station on July 1, 2020.
Instead of building and owning the hardware itself, NASA has turned to public-private partnerships as a way to achieve its goals in space. The agency has seen great success over the past decade through this model, the cargo and crew services provided through vehicles manufactured by SpaceX and Northrop Grumman.
NASA estimated last year that the commercial crew program alone The agency saved between $20 billion and $30 billion while funding the development of two spacecraft instead of 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 a number of anomalies—SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft flew 10 to the ISS for NASA. Along with the astronauts, four private astronauts have also been sent. class last week.
The agency doesn’t expect to pay the full bill for helping companies build new space stations, McAllister said, adding that “the strategy has to work for both the government and the private sector” from an investment perspective.
“You have to find that sweet spot in terms of sharing resources, sharing risks, sharing responsibilities, so that both sides benefit,” McAllister said.
“It was clearly part of the original announcement of the proposals that we expected cost-sharing,” he said. “Going forward, we don’t anticipate paying for the entire commercial destinations. We don’t think that’s fair, because companies are going to own the intellectual property and they’re going to be able to sell that capability to non-NASA customers. going to happen.”
The Commercial Crew Program serves as a guide to the Commercial LEO Destination Project, as NASA initially awarded five companies with commercial crew contracts before narrowing them down to two consecutive through subsequent awards.
“When you’re so quick, it means a lot to the competitors,” McAllister said.
NASA also sees the companies’ strong interest as a sign that the U.S. space industry is “technically and economically capable of building commercial space sites,” McAllister said, adding to the agency’s mandate for science and research in orbit. “Financial commitments”.
“Then we can use that savings – which we estimate to be on the order of a billion to a half billion dollars [annually] – for our deep space missions and aspirations,” he said.
Already working with Axiom
A window to the Axiom Earth Observatory module as seen during construction.
NASA has already begun funding one company’s ambitions under a separate but related contract, awarded Axiom Space with $140 million to build modules that attach to ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom plans to disassemble its module and convert it into a free-flying space station.
Axiom has begun manufacturing those modules, which include huge windows that form an observation deck. The company plans to launch and connect the first habitable module to the ISS by 2024, under the assumption that Congress provides the funding needed to extend the life of the space station through 2028.
“We need ISS extensions, because we’re not going to be ready with these [independent] destination by 2024,” McAllister said.
The House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology Committee is hosting a hearing on the ISS extension Tuesday, with expected testimony from NASA’s ISS director, Robin Gates, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber.
Be a Smart Investor with CNBC Pro.
Get access to stock selections, analyst calls, exclusive interviews and CNBC TV.
Sign up to start one free trial today.