A current trend in the private aerospace industry is the growing number of companies looking to design space stations.
With NASA preparing to de-commission the International Space Station (ISS) in a few years, several companies are emerging as the favorites to nab agency funding and approval.
Earlier this month, NASA awarded three companies contracts to develop private space stations. The agency awarded huge payouts to Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Nanoracks, giving the three companies a total of $415.6 million as part of its Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program.
As usual, the contract awards were disproportional. Nanoracks, the smallest of the companies by far, got a total of $160 million. Blue Origin and Northrop got $130 million and 125.6 million, respectively.
The funds will go towards preliminary work for their space station variants. However, NASA will most likely cut two companies off and award the entire contract to just one.
NASA confirmed earlier this year it had gotten about 12 proposals for space stations from different companies. The ISS will most likely retire before the end of the decade.
The agency is seeking ways to maintain authority in space. It established the CLD to partner with private space companies on new space stations.
Speaking with CNBC in September 2021, Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight, expressed excitement over the possibility of this partnership. He said in part:
"We got an incredibly strong response from industry to our announcement for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go directly to orbit. I can't remember the last time we got that many proposals [in response] to a [human spaceflight] contract announcement."
NASA estimates suggest the agency could save up to $1 billion annually on agreements with the private space companies. Instead of building and maintaining its hardware, the agency is looking to develop with partners.
NASA's already achieved massive success with companies in the past (especially SpaceX and Northrop Grumman) and believes it can do even more in the future.
It is worth noting that NASA doesn't expect to pay for everything under its proposed partnership. Instead, there will be joint investments from the public and private sectors. Still, success could make this arrangement extremely lucrative for the agency and everyone else involved.
Blue Origin in Pole Position
Early projections show that Blue Origin is the frontrunner for this mission.
The Washington-based private aerospace giant unveiled its Orbital Reef space station months back, promising to build an industrial and commercial hub in space that will be suitable for personal, business, and government use.
Blue Origin claimed that the Orbital Reef is like a business park in space. The facility will offer industrial, research, commercial, and international customers an affordable set of services needed to operate in space. These include space living, logistics and transportation, equipment housing, and other operational requirements.
Blue Origin will develop the facility in partnership with Sierra Space - a subsidiary of the Sierra Nevada Corporation. The subsidiary is famous for building Dream Chaser - a spacecraft scheduled to be cleared for operations in 2022 that NASA will use to carry cargo and equipment to the ISS.
Other organizations backing the Orbital Reef include Boeing, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Redwire SPace.
The approval of Blue Origin's work marks an interesting end to a year in which the company already protested NASA's awarding of its human lander system (HLS) contract to SpaceX.
SpaceX had submitted a contract application worth significantly less to the agency, so it had no choice but to award the HLS contract to SpaceX - much to the chagrin of Blue Origin.
Weeks after, Blue Origin submitted a complaint to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and even sued NASA for unfairly awarding the contract to SpaceX.
As the company argued, NASA had promised to award the contract to two companies, not just one. Blue Origin also claimed that NASA had favored SpaceX and even allowed the company to tweak its proposal before its final submission.
A federal judge ruled that NASA was entitled to award the contract however it deemed fit.
Many believed this would kick off bad blood between Blue Origin and NASA, though CEO Jeff Bezos claimed they would be willing to collaborate with the space agency in the future. It appears we won't have to wait long for that collaboration opportunity.