NASA will include support for preliminary research into commercial space stations

NASA expects to grant a set of awards for initial research before later contracting facilities in a bid to promote the construction of the¬†commercial space stations in the¬†low Earth orbit. The Commercial LEO Development (CLD) scheme, which will begin with a series of two to four supported Space Act Agreements between companies to assist with the early design of their planned orbital facilities, was announced at an industry briefing on March 23. In April, a draft declaration of proposals will be issued, accompanied by May’s final draft.

With a cumulative amount of $300 million to around $400 million, these grants are expected to be revealed in the fourth quarter of 2021. They will include work from financial years 2022 to around 2025 to progress the construction of potential commercial space stations to a conceptual design review point. According to NASA, the studies would also assist NASA in evaluating the future availability of the commercial LEO destinations and the combination of consumers who will utilize them.

A second step of the initiative, set to launch in 2026, would include NASA certification of private LEO space stations as well as procuring resources such as payload and astronaut entry to them. The second step’s specifics are still being worked out and will be determined in part by when commercial stations are ready and how NASA will move from the International Space Station until it is withdrawn. Phil McAlister, who serves as the director of commercial spaceflight production at NASA Headquarters, stated, “We’re trying to refine it over the next few years.”

At the conference, NASA did announce its estimated demand for the commercial space stations. It predicts that it would need two space-explorers in space at all times, conducting 200 inquiries each year. The actual use of ISS, which has seven staff on board, is slightly smaller.

According to McAlister, this mirrored ISS study roadmaps, which estimated that a range of inquiries and projects, such as those promoting discovery beyond Earth orbit, will be finished by the station’s retirement. “I believe our criteria would naturally be much lower than they are today after the ISS ends its mission,” he said.

This strategy for the CLD program differs from what NASA planned earlier to promote the construction of “easy flyer” facilities. NASA reported in June 2019 that it would release solicitations to promote financing for both a free-flyer station and connections to the ISS docking port for the commercial module as part of an LEO commercialization plan. The Next Space Technologies will achieve both for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) initiative, which already operates.

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