NASA and companies dismiss concerns about commercial space station development plans

WASHINGTON — Both NASA and the companies selected by the agency to begin developing commercial space stations say they do not share concerns expressed by watchdogs that such stations may not be ready when the International Space Station retires goes.

Dubbed Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, NASA’s effort aims to support the development of one or more commercial space stations that will be ready when NASA decommissions the ISS in 2030. These stations would ideally be ready by the late 2020s, allowing for a gradual transition from the ISS to these facilities.

But some fear these stations won’t be ready before the ISS retires. Last November, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) warned that NASA’s schedules were “unrealistic” and that a commercial station “is unlikely to be ready until well after 2030.” NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) addressed the same issue at its most recent meeting on July 21, noting that NASA’s efforts were “on a precarious path” to meeting costs and schedule.

Both NASA and companies working on commercial stations ignored these warnings during a panel at the ISS Research and Development Conference on July 27. “Our ultimate goal is a continued human presence,” said Angela Hart, NASA’s CLD program manager.

The companies with CLD awards are moving fast, she said. “The framework of these agreements is set up to move quickly, much faster than our normal typical development, and we absolutely see that.”

She suggested that OIG and ASAP made a mistake by comparing commercial space station development to more traditional government programs. The companies involved are motivated to be first, she argued. “Because of those motivations and the differences of this framework, you’re going to see a different type of development that you just can’t compare to typical government program development, which is what OIG and ASAP are doing.”

The four companies on the panel all said they have plans to have their stations in orbit before 2030. Christian Maender, executive vice president of in-space solutions at Axiom Space, a company with a NASA agreement to attach commercial modules to the ISS A precursor to a standalone station, work on the first two modules is progressing according to plan, with the first set due in late 2024 to come onto the market.

“The only concern that comes up is whether the space station will be ready for us,” he said. “I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment” by OIG and ASAP.

“We’re on the right track,” said Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, which works with Blue Origin and other companies at the Orbital Reef station. She cited tests of inflatable modules that Sierra Space is developing for the station and other tests. The first Orbital Reef modules are slated for launch in 2027, a schedule they believe will allow plenty of time for the transition from the ISS.

“We committed to be there two years before the ISS decommissions,” said Amela Wilson, managing director of Nanoracks, which is leading work on the Starlab station concept. “Do not worry.”

Only Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, secured the possibility of being ready before the ISS retired. “It’s obviously very dependent on the market,” he said, including the size of the market and when it will emerge. “That’s really the big question. We can get there before the ISS crashes, but that all depends on the market.”

Exactly who the non-NASA commercial space station customers will be and how much demand they will generate is still unclear. Commercial station developers have talked about a mix of private astronauts, national space agencies, commercial researchers and manufacturing in space as applications of their stations, but acknowledge that they are not sure how these individual markets will perform.

“What’s keeping me up at night is mostly focused on how mature I can make these markets when we’re ready to go fully independent,” Maender said. “I have high hopes based on the conversations we’ve had with clients and customers that there seems to be a lot of interest.”

“Honestly, we don’t know what will become of all these new space stations,” Kavandi said, noting that it’s not uncommon for new, unforeseen applications to emerge. “I am absolutely certain that it will be fantastic.”

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