The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has announced its selection to develop private space stations. NASA selects three US companies that will receive funding from the US Government for the purpose of developing private space stations. From a set of about 11 proposals, NASA picked the following, Blue Origin, Nanoracks LLC, and Northrop Grumman. These three will receive over $400 million in federal funds through three separate Space Act Agreements.
Earlier in July NASA reportedly began seeking proposals for its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development (CLD) program. This program is one which aims to support the development of commercial space stations which forms part of an even bigger plan, which is to eventually replace the International Space Station (ISS) with commercial space stations. This initiative would see NASA become a customer of the commercial space industry, probably allowing a chance for the space agency to save some costs while focusing basically research and exploration.
Blue Origin has been listed to receive about $130 million for the development of the Orbital Reef, a free-flying space station concept that was first announced by the company earlier in October. Orbital Reef is a project that would be developed in partnership with the maker of the winged spaceplane Dream Chaser called Sierra Space. Blue Origin has disclosed that by the second half of the decade, the Orbital Reef station will be in full operation. Blue Origin has had an unpleasant history with the NASA group.
Nanoracks LLC is the second company NASA listed for federal funding. The company will be receiving about $160 million for its Starlab station project. The project design was motivated by a number of reasons which include, holding up to four astronauts, conducting advanced research on the biology, materials science, etc. The project will be in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. According to a press release by NASA, the Starlab project is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight.
Northrop Grumman is the third on NASA’s list, to receive about $125.6 million in funds for an opportunity to develop a commercial space station using a number of existing technologies like its Cygnus spacecraft, which currently ferries cargo to the ISS. Northrop Grumman is not working alone on this project but in partnership with Dynetics on its concept for a modular space station. Other partnerships Northrop Grumman will be onboarding to make the project a reality would be announced in the near future.
Axiom Space, a Houston company NASA first awarded funds as far back as January 2020 for the development of its commercial module with plans to be added to the ISS, disclosed via a tweet that it didn’t make an attempt to bid for the CLD awards. According to NASA, the awards are in two phases and this is the first part that would ensure a smooth transition to commercial stations in LEO. The first phase will give the grant recipients the opportunity to create sustainable plans and designs that meet not just the private sector needs but the government needs as well and is expected to continue through to 2025. During the second phase, NASA wants to certify these stations for human astronauts to use and, ultimately, start using them.