The space station race

The International Space Station brings together astronauts from around the world to collaborate on cutting-edge research, and some have called it humanity’s greatest achievement. But after two decades in orbit, the ISS will shut down, and a crop of several new space stations will take its place. While these new stations will make it easier for more humans to visit space, they’re also bound to create new political and economic tensions.

NASA is scaling back its presence in low-Earth orbit as the government focuses on sending humans back to the moon and, eventually, to Mars. As part of that transition, the space agency wants to rent out facilities for its astronauts on new space stations run by private companies. When these stations are ready, NASA will guide the ISS into the atmosphere, where it will burn up and disintegrate. At that point, anyone hoping to work in space will have to choose among several different outposts. That means countries won’t just be using these new stations to strengthen their own national space programs, but as lucrative business ventures, too.

“Commercial companies have the capability now to do this, and so we don’t want to compete with that,” Robyn Gatens, the director of the ISS, told Recode. “We want to transition lower-Earth orbit over to commercial companies so that the government and NASA can go use resources to do harder things in deep space.”

Private companies currently backed by NASA, including Lockheed Martin and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, could launch as many as four space stations into Earth’s orbit over the next decade. NASA is also building a space station called Gateway near the moon; a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the living quarters for the station is scheduled to launch in 2024. Russia and India are planning to launch their own space stations to low-Earth orbit, too, and China’s Tiangong station, which is currently under construction, already has astronauts living aboard.

It’s not clear when the ISS will go offline, but it will happen. NASA has only technically certified the station’s hardware until 2028 and has awarded more than $400 million to fund private replacements. Other longtime ISS partners are already planning their next steps. Russia may leave the ISS as soon as 2025, the same year its space agency, Roscosmos, plans to launch its new $5 billion space station. The European Space Agency, which represents 22 different European countries, is now training its astronauts for eventual missions to Tiangong.

These new stations are building on technology first seen in the ISS, but they stand to make low-Earth orbit a more politically fraught place. After all, researchers looking to conduct research in space will potentially have to reckon with the political consequences of choosing one nation’s station over that of another. There will also be a new dynamic of several space stations competing for customers in the private sector.

The nascent space station race isn’t quite a return to the Cold War, but it’s not the pinnacle of internationalism, either. In the best of scenarios, these new stations will learn from each other and massively expand scientific knowledge. But they will also make global politics a much bigger part of space, which could impact what happens here on Earth and how humanity explores the moon and Mars.

NASA is downsizing in low-Earth orbit

The ISS is a big operation. It took 42 assembly flights and an estimated $100 billion to build this habitable satellite made of 16 interconnected modules, where astronauts live and work, as well as eight solar arrays that power the station. The ISS serves as a shared laboratory in space, which NASA uses to study technologies that could be deployed on future missions to other planets, including oxygen- and water-recycling systems. Astronauts aboard the space station also research how to mitigate the health risks that come with living in space, like radiation exposure, muscle loss, and bone loss.

“Up in space, we can measure things that we can’t measure and we can’t observe down here,” explained Cady Coleman, a former astronaut and chemist who spent several months on the ISS.

The space station is fully functional right now. Eleven astronauts from four different countries are currently aboard the ISS, where they’ve recently added a new module, organized a spacewalk, and fixed faulty components. Much of the work on the ISS happens with the help of private companies, including major aerospace and defense firms like Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. SpaceX, meanwhile, has been carrying supplies to the ISS since 2012 and started transporting astronauts to it last year.

An astronaut works outside the International Space Station.
NASA via Getty Images

But eventually, NASA wants to get out of the expensive business of running the ’90s-era space station. The ISS is the size of a football field and costs as much as $4 billion annually to operate, and NASA estimates that relocating its astronauts to commercial alternatives could save about $1 billion every year. Newer space stations will be smaller than the ISS and include newer tech, and NASA would only need to pay for the portion that it uses. And once these replacements are launched into orbit, the space agency can finally dispose of the ISS.

“We’re looking at ISS technology that was designed beginning in the ’80s, built in the ’90s, and launched in the ’90s and 2000s,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “This is definitely aging.”

The plan is to deorbit the ISS right over an area called Point Nemo in the South Pacific Ocean, which is the world’s farthest point from land. This will be a delicate process, and could take up to three years. After letting gravity pull the ISS downward to a critical height of 155 miles above Earth, NASA will organize one final flight to remove any remaining research (or astronauts). Soon afterward, ISS operators will use a cargo spacecraft to push the ISS into the atmosphere. While most of the space station should burn off, “a number of high-density payload and structural components” are likely to break through intact, according to NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.

While letting the ISS fall to Earth might sound extreme, it’s the same approach the space agency took when it retired Skylab, the first US space station, in 1979. Engineers have been studying this plan for years, and they plan to fine-tune the workflow until the ISS is close to its final descent.

In the meantime, the goal is to keep the ISS functioning as long as possible, which will give NASA more time to prepare. To ensure that happens, a bipartisan set of lawmakers want to extend the space station’s operations until 2030, a proposal that’s currently packaged within the United States Innovation and Competition Act. NASA and Congress are now waiting on a final decision from the Biden administration.

Private companies are building their own space stations

By creating an economy in low-Earth orbit, NASA thinks it can split the cost of operating a space station with the private sector. The agency is hoping that future commercial space stations will operate like coworking spaces. This would allow NASA astronauts to use facilities in low-Earth orbit alongside astronauts from other national space agencies as well as those from the private industry. There could even be media production companies and space hotel guests on board. NASA is also betting that some companies will want to use these stations to manufacture specialty products in microgravity.

To accelerate these plans, NASA has granted seed funding to four different space station concepts. Perhaps the most high-profile grant is the $130 million going to Orbital Reef, a space station project designed by Blue Origin. The company wants this station to function as a “mixed use business park” that includes labs, 3D printers, and a garden. Blue Origin says Orbital Reef will be only slightly smaller than the ISS but would cost an “order of magnitude” less to build. Orbital Reef will also look more modern, with one large, tubular main corridor that’s lined with windows and just a single layer of solar arrays extending from one side of the spacecraft, according to renderings released by the company.

The Orbital Reef space station will include solar arrays that stretch from one side of the spacecraft.
Orbital Reef

In addition to the Blue Origin project, NASA has backed StarLab — not to be confused with Skylab — a new space station being developed by commercial space company Nanoracks in partnership with Voyager Space…

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