NASA is abandoning its position in low Earth orbit and diverting federal funds toward a manned Mars mission, which opens up room for commercial space companies hoping to establish a new economy above our planet.
To help make the transition, NASA is allowing private companies to add their own modules to the International Space Station and two industry leaders are preparing to launch their own habitats into orbit.
NASA is moving from the development stage to the demonstration stage as it tests technology for a manned Mars mission and that means moving out of the International Space Station, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told FastCompany.
“We’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can. Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA’s vision is we’re trying to move out.”
The space agency didn’t reach this decision over night. In 2014, NASA asked their private space partners to develop new ideas for the ISS and they received a ton of innovative ideas.
In response to the flood of inquiries, NASA decided to allow private companies to attach their own modules to the ISS in preparation for the launch of commercial space stations and the development of an economy in orbit.
There’s no word yet on whether the crew of the private modules will be civilian contractors or NASA astronauts, but two companies are already planning the next phase of expansion.
Bigelow Aerospace is building inflatable modules to attach to the ISS with plans to eventually build an entire expandable station that promises to be much more roomy than anything built with rigid modules.
In 2006 and 2007, Bigelow launched two inflatable habitats into orbit, and this year, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module was attached to the ISS where it continues to be monitored by NASA astronauts.
In 2020, Bigelow plans to launch two huge independent B330 inflatable space stations into orbit aboard United Launch Alliance rockets, Bigelow founder and CEO Robert Bigelow told Space.com.
“This constitutes a stand-alone space station. It needs no other support, no other modules, no other kinds of facilities.”
Meanwhile, Axiom Space is planning to launch a more traditional rigid module to the ISS in 2020 and rent out space to private customers and foreign governments, chief engineer Mike Baine told Space.com.
“There’s a lot of interest by other governments looking to get into the space arena. [Some will likely be] anchor customers.”
Eventually, when NASA ditches the ISS in 2024 and watches it burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, the Axiom module will detach and hook up with another recently launched Axiom module to form an independent space station.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, along with several private space travel companies, hopes the commercial stations will help jumpstart a new economy in orbit above Earth, he wrote in a blog post.
“A vibrant user community will be key to ensuring the economic viability of future space stations.”
As part of that economy, the ULA, a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership, is building their own version of a reusable rocket, called a space truck, to carry cargo into low Earth orbit.
Instead of reusing the first stage of the rocket, like SpaceX does, the ULA wants to reuse the second state, the part that normally carries the cargo to its final destination. The ULA envisions a fleet of space trucks and thousands of employees working in orbit above the Earth.
Also competing for a spot in the developing cislunar economy in low Earth orbit is Deep Space Industries, which is developing a prospecting spacecraft capable of mining water, in the form of ice, that can be used as fuel.
Using water-based fuel obtained from passing space rocks would be much cheaper than hauling it up out of Earth’s gravity well and could allow the developing economy to flourish.
What do you think of the new economy developing above Earth?
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]