NASA Awards Over $400 Million to Companies for Three Space Stations
Humanity is getting three more space stations this decade, and on Thursday, NASA signed just as many mammoth deals with the companies that will build them.
In total, the agency is dishing out $415.6 million among the recipients to each design their own stations in low Earth orbit (LEO). Eleven competitors applied for the funds, but only three were ultimately selected. They are Blue Origin ($130 million), Nanoracks ($160 million), and Northrop Grumman ($125.6 million).
The agreements are part of NASA’s long-term goal to build an American-led commercial economy in space. More urgent, though, is its need to find a replacement for the International Space Station (ISS), already more than 20 years old. The station’s partners are committed to operating it until 2024, but NASA believes it will be safe to occupy through at least 2028 and agency Administrator Bill Nelson has endorsed keeping it operational until 2030.
With at least two of the proposed new space stations expected to become operational before the end of the decade, NASA can maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit.
“With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said, “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.”
The agreements are the first in a two-phase approach. During this first phase, which is expected to continue through 2025, the three companies and their partners will work with NASA to design their space stations in line with potential government and private sector needs.
During the second phase, the agency will certify the stations for use by its astronauts, and ultimately it intends to purchase services from the station providers. In theory, NASA could fulfill its LEO needs at a lower cost and instead focus its resources on the Artemis mission, which should put the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2025.
For the future, NASA estimates it will need continuous accommodations and training for at least two crew members in LEO, support for a national orbiting laboratory, and the performance of approximately 200 investigations annually to support human research, technology demonstrations and biological and physical science.
Here are the three space stations selected for funding by NASA.
Blue Origin and Sierra Space have partnered to develop Orbital Reef, which will start operating in the second half of this decade. It is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that will provide infrastructure for commercial, industrial, scientific, and other activities.
Reusable space transportation and advanced automation are intended to minimize cost and complexity. Accommodations, vehicle docking ports, and utilities would all be scaled with growth in market demand.
Nanoracks is collaborating with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin to produce its space station: Starlab. It is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit.
Starlab is designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.
The station will host the George Washington Carver Science Park featuring four main operational departments – a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area – to meet the needs of researchers and commercial customers. The station will have both internal and external interfaces so it can be expanded.
Northrop Grumman’s space station has not yet been named. More is known, however, about the design, which leverages the Cygnus spacecraft that delivers cargo to the ISS. It will provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond the initial design.
Multiple docking ports will allow future expansion to support crew analog habitats, laboratories, crew airlocks and facilities capable of artificial gravity. The company is working with Dynetics, and other partners will be announced later.