In an attempt to foster its ties with the commercial sector and help nurture a strong “space economy”, NASA has said that it will soon make one of the docking ports on the International Space Station (ISS) available for private enterprises to attach their own modules.
Announcing the scheme in a White House blog post, NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained that collaboration with commerical businesses is likely to be key to colonizing Mars, which is why the administration is now seeking new ways to offer businesses the chance to join in the great cosmic adventure.
As part of its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships – or NextSTEP – initiative, NASA put out requests for information (RFI) earlier this year asking companies to send in ideas for how they would use an ISS docking port if given the chance. Clearly impressed with the entries, it now says it plans to start making some of these visions a reality.
“As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station,” explained Bolden.
At present, the docking port is occupied by an inflatable module known as the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was built by Las Vegas-based company Bigelow Aerospace and attached to the ISS back in April. Though not intended to be actually used by astronauts, the attachment is nevertheless expected to pave the way for future privately-built inhabitable modules, as it contains a series of sensors that will help to monitor how it stands up to the space environment.
With BEAM due to be detached from the ISS in 18 months, NASA now wants to give other companies the chance to get involved, in the hope that the modules they develop provide them with the knowledge and experience to one day build space stations of their own.
NASA has yet to announced any details of which companies will be selected to develop these modules, although it has revealed the identities of six businesses that have been invited to build Earth-based prototypes for deep space habitats that could one day be used to house people on interplanetary voyages, as part of a separate NextSTEP initiative that was launched in 2014.