Here's How 3 Space Companies Aim to Replace the ISS

By Ramin Skibba

The International Space Station, with its many modules, four sets of solar arrays, and numerous visitors from around the world, has been an iconic presence in the night sky since the late 1990s and a symbol of global cooperation and space science. But it can’t last forever.

In 2019, small cracks and air leaks appeared in the Russian-built Zarya module, the oldest piece of the station. Orbiting bits of space junk have threatened the spacecraft, too. As China assembles its own space station—whose core module, Tianhe, launched this April—NASA is developing plans for a successor to the aging ISS. Last week, the agency signed agreements with three US-based companies—Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman—to design space stations that would combine scientific and commercial activities.

The agency is investing some $416 million combined in the three companies to develop their designs, which include ISS-like modules or inflatable habitats. All would have to allow for future additional modules to be docked, Lego-style. NASA’s financial contribution amounts to less than 40 percent of the total funding for the detailed designs, with the rest coming from private sources. Ultimately, the agency will choose only one of these plans to build.

“This is really the beginning of a new era. We did commercial crew, commercial cargo, and now commercial space stations. This is the next big step,” says Marshall Smith, senior vice president of space systems at Nanoracks and a former deputy associate administrator at NASA.

NASA officials hope the ISS will continue operating at least until the late 2020s, when the first modules of the new station could launch. They’re planning for a two-phase process. Until 2025, these companies will flesh out their blueprints in coordination with the space agency. Then in the second phase, NASA officials will choose one of the company’s plans as the design they’ll move forward with. Within two or three years, that company will launch its first module, which will provide accommodations for at least two astronauts to conduct research and experiments.

This will allow for a “seamless transition” from the ISS, Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial low-Earth orbit development program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, said at a press conference on Thursday. “This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost to enable the agency to focus on its Artemis missions to the moon and on to Mars.”

An artists' rendition of the space station design proposed by Northrop Grumman.

Illustration: Northrop Grumman