What Comes After the International Space Station?

 wired.com  10/27/2020 11:00:00   Daniel Oberhaus

For the past two decades, the International Space Station has been humanitys home away from home. Its hosted hundreds of astronauts from 18 countries. Its served as the platform for groundbreaking science experiments that have fundamentally changed our understanding of human biology, climate change, and the universe itself. Its been a proving ground for futuristic technologies like organs on a chip and quantum communication terminals, and it's fostered the birth of a vibrant commercial space industry. The ISS is arguably the best thing weve ever done. But all good things must come to an end.

The ISS will mark 20 years of continuous human occupation on Saturday, but its unlikely to last another 20 years. Funding for the space station is scheduled to dry up this decade, although exactly when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and the agencys international partners have guaranteed support for the ISS until 2024, and some supporters in Congress have advocated extending the agencys space station budget through 2028. What happens next is anyone's guess, but theres a good chance it will involve scrapping the ISS and using privately operated commercial space stations instead.

I think now is the right time to start moving away from the International Space Station, which is really just a government monopoly on space destinations, and moving them over to the private sector, says Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA. Its time for NASA to start setting its sights toward deep space exploration and letting entrepreneurs move in behind us.

Over the past few years, NASA has been pushing hard to stoke commercial interest in the space station. Last year, the agency declared the ISS open for business at the Nasdaq stock exchange. The Trump administration floated the idea of a subsidy to help transition the ISS to a commercial operator. The logic is simple: NASA officials want to build moon bases and send astronauts to Mars, which is hard to do when the agency has to shell out nearly a fifth of its annual budget to keep the lights on at the ISS. Still, NASA needs a crewed research platform in low earth orbit to test the technologies that will keep humans alive on other worlds. By leaning on private industry to build and operate new space stations, NASA can focus its efforts on pushing humans deeper into space.

NASA has been very open about the fact that in order to do exploration beyond low earth orbit, you have to have a platform there to test systems and get experience, says Michael Suffredini, the cofounder and CEO of Axiom Space, a company that is poised to build the worlds first commercial space station. The US government saw early on that to do exploration it couldn't afford the next space station. And so that's why were building one to replace the International Space Station after it retires.

Earlier this year, NASA awarded Axiom the right to attach one of its own crew modules to a docking port on the ISSand a $140 million contract to make it happen. The companys plan is to launch its first module to the space station by 2024 and expand from there. In addition to the crew habitation module, Suffredini says Axiom is planning for at least two others: One will be a laboratory and manufacturing facility, and the other will be a panoramic observatory similar to the ISS cupola. The companys plan is to leave the three modules attached to the ISS until its ready to be retired, which Suffredini expects to be around 2028. Once the world decides to pull the plug on the ISS, Axioms private habitat will detach itself and become the worlds first commercial free-flying space station.

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