Nearly two years ago, NASA placed its bets to develop commercial space stations on four companies: Blue Origin, Nanorax, Northrop Grumman, and Axiom Space. Now, as the US space agency looks to find a successor to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, that landscape is changing dramatically.
At this week’s International Astronautical Congress meeting in Azerbaijan, sources said there was widespread speculation that one of these four companies, Northrop Grumman, would withdraw from the competition. Northrop plan The goal was to leverage the successful Cygnus spacecraft design to build a free-flying space station.
However, Northrop no longer plans to do so. Instead, it will join a project backed by Voyager Space, which is partnering with Europe-based Airbus to develop a commercial space station. Northrop will likely provide cargo transportation services, with Cygnus as part of the team. Officials from Voyager and Northrop Grumman declined to comment on the change in strategy, which could be announced soon.
And you, blue?
Other changes to the commercial space station program are likely. Blue Origin, which has proposed a luxury terminal concept called “Orbital Reef,” is hedging its plans, multiple sources told Ars. Sources indicated that Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos is not particularly interested in a space station in low Earth orbit, preferring instead to focus on the company’s efforts to develop a lunar lander and other lunar infrastructure.
last week, CNBC reported that Blue Origin and its primary partner at Orbital Reef, Sierra Space, were reevaluating their partnership because it was “on rocky footing.” The post notes that Blue Origin and Sierra Space will likely go separate ways, and it’s not clear whether the two companies will continue solo space station efforts.
NASA has a lot to rely on these initiatives. The agency plans to operate the International Space Station in cooperation with its partners until 2030, after which time it intends to move to leasing time on commercial space stations. NASA officials have repeatedly said they do not want there to be a gap in providing a place for astronauts to live and work in Earth orbit.
The space agency allocated more than half a billion dollars in development grants to four companies two years ago. Three of them, Blue Origin, Nanorak, and Northrop, were to build free-flying stations. A fourth company, Axiom, plans to build modules that are initially attached to the space station but eventually detach to form an independent space station. Sometime within the next year or two, NASA plans to allocate a larger portion of the funding as commercial space station vendors move to building and testing hardware.
But this commercial space station program was rather difficult. NASA funding so far has allowed only limited development, and Congress has been slow to adequately fund the initiative. Each of the participants also faced important questions.
Axiom Space had to scramble to raise hundreds of millions of dollars. Northrop was unsure whether a commercial market existed beyond secured contracts to house NASA astronauts, and this is likely what led to its decision to withdraw the bid. Voyager had to change its team with the departure of Lockheed Martin and the entry of Airbus. There have been ongoing concerns about Bezos’ commitment to the Orbital Reef project.
The overall program is not in danger
Now, the potential loss of one or two of the top four contenders — teams led by Blue Origin and Northrop — seems to indicate troubled waters ahead. However, this may not be the problem. Sources indicate that the commercial space station program is evolving and not ending.
For Axiom and Voyager Space, their plans to develop commercial stations are a key part of their future business plans. They are likely to remain committed in the coming years.
There are newcomers too. Well-funded startup Vast Space has indicated an interest in private space stations, and could launch its first residential module as early as 2025. SpaceX has also said it could use the massive Starship vehicle as a commercial, flyable, customizable space station. Missions.
The question for NASA is which of these companies has the right mix of funding, desire and ability to create a commercial habitat in space before the end of the 2020s. The agency must then act decisively, with adequate funding, to help its partners through the difficult process of building, qualifying and launching human-intended devices into orbit.
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