Science

Space station successors may not be ready to replace aging lab in time: report

NASA’s Safety Advisory Panel has warned that the agency may not be able to transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations in time to leave a gap in America’s presence in low Earth orbit, or LEO.

Earlier this year, NASA laid out its plans to operate the International Space Station (ISS) until the end of this decade, after which it will deorbit it in a fiery death. NASA is currently supporting the development of commercial stations to provide US access to orbit, but there are concerns that they will not be ready by the time the ISS is decommissioned.

According to SpaceNews (will open in a new tab) Referring to the July 21 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), the panel is now warning of a “dangerous trajectory” that may not have enough time or resources to transition before decommissioning the ISS. “This is of concern to us,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the ASAP commission, who has worked for the Department of Defense for decades.

Related: Photo tour of the International Space Station

One issue that could lead to the disruption between the ISS and commercial stations that could ensue is the funding that such a transition would require. It is also unclear how NASA will be able to ensure that there will be enough start-up business to fully fund station operations through commercial investment alone.

If interest is low, NASA may have to find funding to serve as a “bridge” while commercial stations go live. “NASA really needs to recognize and plan for the underlying reality that maintaining a permanent human presence in orbit now and in the future will require significant public investment,” said ASAP panel member Amy Donahue, who is also the Chancellor of the Coast Guard Academy. in Connecticut, according to Space News.

In December 2021, NASA awarded Blue Origin, Nanoracks LLC, and Northrop Grumman three contracts worth a total of $415.6 million as part of a program to fund and develop commercial space stations. The agency hopes to reach the preliminary design review stages of each of the proposed space station concepts, including discussion of their potential customers and destinations, by the end of fiscal year 2025, in September 2025.

NASA has already partnered with Axiom Space to launch commercial modules on the ISS, the first of which will launch in 2024 if the proposed schedule is met, and eventually separate for solo flight.

These are not the first concerns that NASA advisers have raised about the risk of a rupture between the ISS and what could happen next. And NASA has already had the painful experience of similar gaps in its activities, which the agency does not want to repeat.

“We really had a hole in our transportation system when we decommissioned the shuttle, which we don’t want to repeat with our US human presence in low Earth orbit,” Robin Gateens, NASA director for the ISS, said during a hearing in September 2021.

“That’s why NASA is committed to an orderly transition from ISS operations in LEO to commercially-provided US destinations in low Earth orbit,” she added. “We can’t have a gap in US manned spaceflight in low Earth orbit.”

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