Jul 27, 2021 - Science

What comes next after the International Space Station ends

Illustration of the International Space Station with a closed sign attached

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

NASA is at risk of losing a foothold in orbit after the end of the International Space Station.

Why it matters: Without an operating base in space, the agency's plan to shift from being a sole provider of services in orbit to becoming a customer of companies operating there is in jeopardy.

  • NASA is hoping that instead of running its own space station, it will have the option to send its astronauts to privately run space stations in orbit by the time the ISS ends.

Driving the news: NASA this month put out a final call asking for companies to submit their ideas for space stations they could build and operate where astronauts could visit and perform experiments.

  • Those space stations would need to be up and running by the time the ISS comes to an end by 2030 or earlier.
  • NASA will award money to the companies chosen for certain milestones, but the agency isn't going to fully fund the development of these space stations, according to the request for proposals.

Background: It took nine years for SpaceX's Dragon to fly NASA astronauts to the space station after the end of the space shuttle program, a long gap during which NASA had to pay to fly people aboard Russia's Soyuz rocket.

  • That type of gap is unacceptable for the end of the space station, according to Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight.
  • "We think [a gap] would decimate both the crew and cargo capabilities that we helped develop, and it would also decimate all the research that we've been able to accomplish during the 20 years of continuous presence on the ISS," McAlister told me.

The stakes: If NASA is unable to continue sending their astronauts to a space station, it could affect the space agency's plans for exploration in the future.

  • NASA hopes to send astronauts to the Moon in 2024, with more lunar missions to come after and then Mars sometime after that. But it would also be beneficial for the space agency to have astronauts in low-Earth orbit to gain experience before going to a far-off destination.
  • "Maintaining that presence in low-Earth orbit allows us and our partners to have a robust number of astronauts... and gain knowledge in terms of how the human body reacts on the long term [to spaceflight], and that's something that we can only do in lower Earth orbit," Mike Gold of Redwire Space told me.
  • The space agency also wants to maintain a human presence in low-Earth orbit in part to retain its position as a foremost space power as China works to build its own space station and also aims to eventually put people on the Moon.

Yes, but: It's not clear Congress will fund NASA's plan to help support industry development of low-Earth orbit.

  • NASA requested $150 million for its commercialization of low-Earth orbit for fiscal year 2021 but only got $17 million appropriated from Congress.
  • It also still isn't clear what kind of demand there will be for these space stations aside from governments in the future, though some have suggested specialized pharmaceuticals or tech products could be manufactured in weightlessness.

What to watch: NASA already has a deal with Axiom Space to fly a module to the ISS in 2024, as the first stage in the company's plans to eventually operate its own commercial space station.

  • "So NASA has got to make mods to the International Space Station for us to get there, and we have to build our modules," Mike Suffredini, CEO of Axiom told me. "The other half of that question is whether NASA is going to be ready."
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