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NASA mulls private space stations post ISS

SpaceX capsule docked to ISS
SpaceX capsule docked to ISS

A February 24, 2014 story in Space Policy Online suggests that the International Space Station may be the last government run and financed facility of its type.

NASA may have gotten the White House’s blessing to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating until at least 2024, but it won’t last forever. Speaking to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) subcommittee today, Bill Gerstenmaier expressed hope that private sector space stations will materialize for the longer term future.

“Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Mission Directorate, spoke to the Research Subcommittee of the NAC HEO Committee this morning. The bulk of his remarks dealt with how best to make use of ISS for research during its lifetime, but he also pointed to the need for the commercial sector to build “mini space stations” as places for future research.

“While praising the White House decision to keep ISS operating through 2024 because it gives researchers certainty that they will have time to conduct experiments, he also said ‘I don’t think there’ll be another government-sponsored space station.’ He believes the ISS will be fine through 2028, but he pointed to the desirability of companies flying single-purpose space stations thereafter and the government could buy services or research time from them instead.”

Currently Bigelow Aerospace is planning to build a commercial space station based around inflatable modules and rent space on it to a variety of customers. Presumably that would include NASA and other government space agencies, as well as commercial companies, academic organizations, and private individuals.

The approach is an extension of the one started by the Bush administration for Earth to low Earth orbit launch services, of NASA being a customer rather than an operator of space stations. The idea is that private companies would undertake the burden of building and operating these orbiting facilities, competing for customers, and thus reducing costs. A number of private space stations would also increase the market for private launch services, such as SpaceX, currently vying for contracts to take astronauts to and from the ISS.

In this way NASA would continue to be freed up for cutting edge technology development and deep space exploration.

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