Low-Earth orbit is becoming a lucrative sphere of real estate.
NASA expects to retire the International Space Station by the end of the decade, with the agency turning to private companies to construct the space stations that will lead the next generation of low-Earth orbit operations. It's the end of an era not only for the International Space Station, but also for a vision of publicly funded and operated space missions in orbit.
But it's not for nothing. When the ISS dies, NASA expects to save $1 billion, which could be rededicated to more missions in deep space, to the moon, Mars, and beyond, according to an initial report from CNBC.
When the ISS is retired, NASA could save $1 billion every year
NASA has "received roughly about a dozen proposals" from several disparate companies seeking space station contracts, said the agency's Director of Commercial Spaceflight Phil McAlister in the CNBC report. "We are making tangible progress on developing commercial space destinations where people can work, play and live". The U.S. space agency wants to retire the ISS by the end of the 2020s, which will create a vacancy not so much in space, but in the logistics of space endeavors that private companies could fill with space stations of their own. And selecting firms to build new space stations in low-Earth orbit could save the agency more than $1 billion every year.
Earlier in 2021, NASA revealed the Commercial LEO Destinations project, which aims to offer up to $400 million in total contracts to up to four companies, who, upon receipt, will start developing an entirely new generation of space stations, according to the CNBC report. And the list of candidates is long. "We got an incredibly strong response from industry to our announcement for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go directly to orbit," said McAlister in the report. "I can't remember the last time we got that many proposals [in response] to a [human spaceflight] contract announcement." And with the ISS more than 20 years old, it's an opportunity NASA won't refuse. The space station costs roughly $4 billion to operate every year, and retains approval for ongoing operation until 2024 (but it will probably last until the end of 2028).
NASA is stepping back from its role as a unilateral supplier of space infrastructure
However, in the future, NASA intends "to be just one of many users instead of the primary sponsor and infrastructure supporter" for forthcoming space stations in low-Earth orbit. "This strong industry response shows that our plan to retire the International Space Station in the latter part of this decade and transition to commercial space destinations is a viable, strong plan," added McAlister. And NASA might announce its contract winners "before the end of the year," possibly earlier. The firms who have submitted proposals represent a "diverse group of companies," some of which are modest startups, while others are colossal aerospace firms. No surprise, then, that when NASA hosted a March briefing for private officials, world-historical billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and their respective companies SpaceX and Blue Origin, were in attendance.
Also in attendance were Lockheed Martin, Airbus, Boeing, and many more. With such heavy-hitting interest in private space stations, McAlister stressed that NASA "will not need anything near as big and as capable" as the ISS in the future. So ends the age of NASA engaging in massive, unilateral undertakings on behalf of the people of the U.S. to build infrastructure in low-Earth orbit. Future private space stations "could be very large," indeed Orbital Assembly Corporation aims to build a gigantic spinning station containing habitats, science labs, and potentially military officials that will be 650 ft (200 m) in diameter. But "NASA will only be paying for the parts we need," said McAlister.