NASA's plans to develop next-generation commercial space stations by the end of the decade have taken another step forward, as it has awarded three companies with lucrative contracts to design the International Space Station's (ISS) successors. Surprisingly to some, one of those companies is Blue Origin, generally assumed not to be in NASA's good books after a tumultuous year.
Last week, NASA awarded $415.6 million in Space Act Agreements as part of its Commerical Low Earth Orbit Destination program. With the ISS approved to operate until 2024, with a likely extension through to 2030, the space agency is turning to the private sector to plan the station's replacements beyond the 2020s. The three companies – Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Nanoracks – will "develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space," according to a statement from NASA, submitting their plans in 2025 for NASA to choose which will go forward.
This, however, was the sticking point where the relationship between the space agency and Jeff Bezos' company Blue Origin soured earlier this year. To recap: In April, Bezos filed a complaint with the US Government Accountability Office accusing NASA of unfairly awarding a much-desired lunar lander contract to Elon Musk's SpaceX on the grounds it said it would choose multiple contracts for the lander, only to choose just one, which was, crucially, not Blue Origin. While waiting for the verdict, it offered the space agency what many saw as a bribe to choose it. NASA didn't take up the offer and Blue Origin lost the appeal. In mid-August, it filed to sue NASA. In November, it again lost the appeal.
Last month, NASA capped the saga off by announcing the mission to put humans on the Moon again – the very mission for which the lunar lander contract was for – was being pushed back from 2024 to 2025, in part because Blue Origin's lawsuits delayed progress.
Like there has been for the last 21 years, NASA is seeking to maintain an "uninterrupted US presence in low-Earth orbit", it said. These new space stations will be available for both government and private-sector use, though, and as NASA's budget troubles are often reported, the agency opened it up to the private space sector.
However, despite the US now having 5,582 space-focused companies, according to Forbes, private space companies that could actually produce working designs are few and far between, so it's not that surprising NASA chose Blue Origin.
In fact, Blue Origin already announced plans for its "commercial business park" space station, Orbital Reef. The $130 million NASA awarded will go towards refining the design and concept, with a potential date set for low-Earth orbit between 2025 and 2030.
Nanoracks has teamed up with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin to create a commercial low-Earth orbit destination named “Starlab", targeted for launch in 2027.
Northrop Grumman's currently unnamed station will develop design elements from its Cygnus spacecraft that already provides cargo to the ISS, adding docking stations, crew quarters, and laboratories.
As Gizmodo points out, the announcement of the contracts comes just a week after a report from NASA's Office of Inspector General that warns of a potential gap between the end of the ISS and working commercial successors.
"The Agency projects that the first phase of its destination strategy will complete early design maturation in 2025. In our judgment, even if early design maturation is achieved in 2025—a challenging prospect in itself—a commercial platform is not likely to be ready until well after 2030,” the report reads.
Noting that NASA's Commerical Crew Program didn't get off the ground, so to speak, until eight years after it completed "early design maturation" in 2012, the report adds: "We found that commercial partners agree that NASA’s current timeframe to design and build a human-rated destination platform is unrealistic."
It looks like the clock is ticking and it's all hands on deck to keep that continuous human presence in space.