Three Winners for Commercial LEO Destinations Awards

Three Winners for Commercial LEO Destinations Awards

NASA selected three winners today for contracts to design commercial space facilities to replace the International Space Station. The contracts are for design only. Another competition will be held in a few years for one or more companies to actually build space stations in low Earth orbit where NASA can be just one of many customers purchasing services to conduct research instead of owning the facility itself.

The three awards are part of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Destinations or CLD effort to use the Public-Private Partnership model to ensure it has access to space stations in LEO for the long term future.

In PPPs, the government and private sector share development costs and the government agrees to purchase a certain amount of services with the expectation the company will find other customers to close the business case. The commercial cargo and commercial crew programs that support the ISS today are PPPs and NASA has embraced the model for other parts of its portfolio.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency (ESA).  It is getting old. The first modules were launched in 1998 and it has been permanently occupied by crews for 21 years. NASA has no plans to build another, but still needs a place to conduct research for itself, especially to support human exploration of Mars. The United States also does not want to cede leaderhip in LEO to China, the only other country with a space station.

Officially, the United States is committed to operating ISS through 2024, but there is a widespread expectation that will be extended to 2030. Robyn Gatens, NASA’s ISS Program Director, told reporters today that the five space agencies — NASA, ESA, Russia’s Roscosmos, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) — signed a statement in September that supported an extension to 2030, but the governments need to act to make it official. “Frankly, they’re kind of waiting for the U.S. to go first.”  The Senate-passed NASA Authorization Act would do just that, but there has been no action in the House yet.

Meanwhile, NASA needs to get going on whatever will succeed ISS. The Space Act Agreements signed with Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman today totally $415.6 million are a first step in a two-phase process.  This first phase, through 2025, is for formulating and designing LEO destinations. NASA will certify designs for use by NASA astronauts in the second phase with the expectation the new facilities will be operational prior to 2030 to allow a seamless transition from the ISS.

Blue Origin, teamed with Sierra Space, Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering and Arizona State University won $130 million. They recently revealed their Orbital Reef concept at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai. They describe it as a mixed-use business park.

Nanoracks, teamed with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin on their Starlab concept, won $160 million. Its four-person space station needs only a single launch, which they plan for 2027.

Illlustration of Starlab. Credit: Nanoracks

Northrop Grumman teamed with Dynetics and others that will be announced later won $125.6 million. They have not chosen a name yet. Theirs is a modular concept leveraging their Cygnus module, which is already in use as one of the two ISS commercial cargo vehicles and is being adapted for the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) for NASA’s lunar Gateway space station.

Illustration of Northrop Grumman’s CLD concept. Credit: Northrop Grumman

The three awards are in addition to an existing $140 million contract NASA has with Axiom Space. Axiom is building a module that will attach to the ISS in 2024. Other modules will join it and after several years, they will detach and become a free-flying space station.

NASA refers to Axiom’s contract as Commercial Destination ISS (CDISS). The three announced today will fly independently from the beginning and are called Commercial Destination Free Flyers (CDFF).  All four are part of the agency’s CLD effort.

Congress has been slow in warming up to the CLD initiative. NASA requested $150 million in FY2020 and FY2021, but Congress appropriated only $15 million and $17 million respectively. For FY2022, the agency requested $101 million. It is faring better this year. The House Appropriations Committee approved $45 million and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the full amount.

Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight, said today the requested level of funding is sufficient to support these new contracts. If the funding is less than requested, some of the milestones might have to change, but the key is for Congress to complete action on FY2022 appropriations.  “We would still be fine” if the agency is under a Continuing Resolution (CR) through February, but if the agency had to cope with a full-year CR, where it would be held to its FY2021 level, that would require replanning.

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