The future of space travel is looking increasingly private. Next year, out of four planned missions to land a rover on the Moon, two are by private companies and two by nation states.
Now it seems the trend towards private companies entering the space race is going to hit the International Space Station, too.
The ISS is a joint venture between the space agencies of Canada, the US, Russia, Japan and Europe, but the majority of the money comes from Nasa. According to Nasa Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, the agency spends $3.5 billion a year on the ISS, with an additional $1 billion coming from the other contributors combined. This means the fate of the ISS depends strongly on the US contribution.
In March this year, the US Congress met to discuss the options of extending the lifetime of the international project of the International Space Station. The mission, which is currently planned to end in 2024, could be extending until 2030 according to a Bill passed weeks later.
The decision to extend its life would come at a cost. If the US government put more money into maintaining the ISS, it would have less left to spend on more adventurous options such as sending manned missions to the Moon and, eventually, Mars. “Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the Moon and Mars,” said Brian Babin, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space, during the hearing.
But what if the options were not so black and white? Instead of the US government deciding the future of the ISS, one likely scenario is private companies will play a more important role.
“Nasa and our international partners have determined that an extension to 2028 is technically feasible,” says Nasa public affairs officer, Daniel Huot. “With that, options are under review.” But, he added, “Nasa is committed to increased collaboration with the commercial space industry which will play a larger role in station’s future.”
Whether this increased collaboration with industry will result in a longer lifetime of the ISS is uncertain, but it will change the way
“It may well be that we keep the Space Station in orbit to study ageing of hardware,” says Jeffrey Manber, CEO of NanoRacks, the commercial company which teamed up with Nasa earlier this year to design the ISS’s first commercial air lock.
“It may well be that we keep the ISS in orbit beyond 2024, the current funded date, to use it for non-commercial Deep Space test bedding.”
However, Manber does not believe this is likely.
“It is my belief that over the next several years the private sector can, and will step up to help create, with the help of our government, a private sector marketplace in low-earth orbit,” he says. “At NanoRacks, we are moving quickly towards our own in-space platforms…working with SSL, Space Adventurers and ULA.”
Last year, one of the biggest commercial projects on the ISS was completed when the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (Beam), a blow-up room on the space station, was inflated. During seven hours of operations on May 28 the capsule was inflated and astronauts were able to go inside.
Transportation of crew and cargo is already undertaken by private companies, with SpaceX and Orbital ATK regularly taking cargo to the ISS, and the first service mission by a Boeing CST-100 Starliner expected next year.
But if Manber’s predictions are right, the ISS could slowly become the first commercial low-earth orbit funded by private companies, reducing the need for taxpayers to fund ventures into space, and this could happen within the next five years.
“It is possible and indeed plausible that by 2022, companies such as NanoRacks will be able to undertake most of the in-space services at economically efficient levels and safety,” Manber says. “The transportation, both crewed and cargo, will be done by the private sector.”