In order to cut costs and focus on its ambitious goals, the US space agency has increasingly turned to private industry to develop hardware it once made itself. NASA's goals include building habitats on the Moon and preparing for a crewed mission to Mars. Photograph:( Reuters )
For the development of their orbital outposts, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the aerospace company Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman won contracts worth $130 million, $160 million and $125.6 million, respectively
NASA awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to three companies to develop commercial space stations that will eventually replace the International Space Station, which is set to retire around the end of this decade.
For the development of their orbital outposts, Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, the aerospace company Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman won contracts worth $130 million, $160 million and $125.6 million, respectively.
An earlier $140 million contract was awarded to a fourth company, Axiom Space.
In order to cut costs and focus on its ambitious goals, the US space agency has increasingly turned to private industry to develop hardware it once made itself. NASA's goals include building habitats on the Moon and preparing for a crewed mission to Mars.
"We are partnering with US companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space," said NASA chief Bill Nelson in a statement.
"These awards will help ensure the United States has a continuous human presence" in low Earth orbit, said Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight. "A gap would be bad."
The companies have not given an estimate of how much the space stations will cost to develop, but they have unveiled their plans.
However, McCalister said NASA would not contribute more than 40 per cent of the funding to the projects.
"The sum invested today by NASA to launch this program is small compared to the money that will be required," said Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin's senior vice president of advanced development programs.
As part of a collaboration with Sierra Space, Blue Origin is creating Orbital Reef, which will eventually house 10 people. Microgravity research and manufacturing will be carried out in the "mixed-use business park in space".
Developed with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, Nanoracks' space station will be called "Starlab."
Nanoracks aims to be operational in 2027 and will include a biology lab, plant habitation lab, a physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area.
Northrop Grumman, which developed a cargo delivery system called Cygnus, currently supports the International Space Station by making deliveries. It plans to build its own station module by module. This will ensure that science, tourism, and industrial experimentation will all be included.
Watch | Blue Origin unveils plans for Orbital Reef, a 'business park' in outer space
Twenty-one years have passed since the first long-term residents were welcomed to the space station. It has become a symbol of international cooperation, particularly between the US and Russia.
As of now, the International Space Station is rated safe until 2028, and new administrator Nelson has stated that he hopes it will last until 2030, by which time NASA wants the commercial sector to take the lead and replace it.