On Thursday, NASA announced the selected contractors to develop designs for the future commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station.
In a press release, NASA announced the awardees of three Space Act Agreements worth a total of $415.6 million. Under the agreement, the companies will develop designs for future space stations when the ISS is retired.
The companies are:
- Sierra Space/Blue Origin – $130 million
- Nanoracks – $160 million
- Northrop Grumman – $125.6 million
Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities. With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.NASA Administrator Bill Nelson
The awards are the first of a two-phase system, similar to the selection of the Human Landing System. In this first phase, the companies will develop the designs and technology for their stations alongside NASA. This is expected to take place through 2025.
In the second phase, NASA will certify one or more space stations for human use. The agency expects continuous presence to a station for at least two crew members and over 200 experiments a year.
Sierra Space and Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef
Announced back in October, Orbital Reef is a partnership between Sierra Space, Blue Origin, Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. The station will be a “mixed-use space business park” between research missions and space tourism. The station features Sierra Space’s LIFE habitat (Large Integrated Flexible Environment), an expandable module allowing for out-of-this-world-sized spaces. Launches on Blue Origin’s New Glen rocket are expected to begin towards the end of this decade.
Nanoracks Starlab space station
Nanoracks, Lockheed, and Voyager Space have joined together to build Starlab. This much smaller station compared to the others will host four astronauts and can be launched in a single take. In addition, Starlab will feature the George Washington Carver Science Park, which will have four departments for research: biology, plant habitation, physical science and materials research, and an open workbench to meet the needs of future customers. Starlab is expected to launch in 2027.
Northrop Grumman’s (maybe with SpaceX?) space station
The lesser-known design is being led by Northrop Grumman, alongside Dynetics. This station will use a similar module design as the ISS and won’t take advantage of expandable modules like the other two designs. Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft will be used for cargo delivery and, seen in the render, is quite clearly a SpaceX Crew Dragon. That might be a placeholder, but it obviously shows which company they prefer.
Some interesting takeaways from the first render are that the docking ports look similar to the International Docking Adaptor used on the station. Paired with no visible robotic arm, this would mean Cygnus would need to have autonomous docking and IDA features. Unfortunately, no date was given for when it could start launching.