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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Companies are rapidly designing private space stations that could one day dominate operations in orbit around Earth.

Why it matters: NASA is hoping private industry will start to take over operations in low-Earth orbit once the International Space Station comes to an end, creating a robust commercial market in that part of space.

  • Commercially operated private space stations are a big part of NASA's vision to buy services from companies in orbit and then focus on further afield goals like getting to the Moon and Mars.

Driving the news: NASA detailed an initiative at the end of March asking companies to partner with them in the development of private space stations that might act as a destination for NASA astronauts and research in the future.

  • Under these agreements, NASA would help support the companies as they develop the space stations and carry out preliminary design reviews — an important technical assessment of what it will take to get a station flying — by the end of fiscal year 2025.
  • On the heels of that announcement, Sierra Nevada Corporation announced its plans to build a private space station.
  • Another company, Axiom Space, already has plans in motion to build its own commercial space station after first attaching a module to the International Space Station at some point in the coming years.

Between the lines: NASA wants to avoid having a gap in the agency's regular access to orbit when the ISS is retired before the end of the decade.

  • The space agency was forced to rely on Russia for access to orbit when the space shuttle program ended before commercial flyers like SpaceX were up and running.
  • By partnering with private companies now, the agency is signaling it wants to be able to transition smoothly to private stations instead of a hard stop when the ISS ends.
  • "We're not going to just turn off the lights one day," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, said during an event. "We're going to have an overlap period where we, over a period of time, draw down the operations of ISS as we increase operations for LEO [low-Earth orbit] destinations. So that gives us some time."

NASA has already effectively proved out this kind of public/private partnership model with SpaceX flying astronauts to orbit.

But, but, but: Operating a private space station is a much bigger task than simply launching people to space, and some experts in the industry say there isn't enough time for private companies to get their space stations functioning before the ISS comes to an end.

  • The funding attached to NASA's new program also may not be enough to get these stations off the ground in time.
  • "I don't see how they're going to get it together by 2024 [or] 2028," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios. "I think it is much more likely that we'll see the Chinese space station well before the commercial space station or a private-sector space station."

Go deeper

Updated 48 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Supreme Court rejects Trump's attempt to shield documents from Jan. 6 committee

Photo: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

The Supreme Court rejected on Wednesday night a bid by former President Trump to block the release of documents and records from his administration to the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol.

Why it matters: Trump asked the Supreme Court to step in and block the release of the documents last month after a panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit unanimously denied his attempt to prevent the committee from obtaining the materials.

Senate Republicans block voting rights bill

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell walks to the Senate floor on Jan. 18. Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senate Republicans blocked Democrats' voting rights legislation from coming to a final vote on Wednesday in what was largely viewed as a doomed effort from the start.

Why it matters: The failed vote underscores the Democratic Party's current uphill battle to pass sweeping legislation in a 50-50 Senate.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden says Russia likely to invade Ukraine

President Biden addressed the brewing conflict between Russia and Ukraine during a press briefing Wednesday, saying of Russian President Vladimir Putin, "my guess is he will move in."

Why it matters: U.S. officials have issued a series of warnings about Russia's threatening military buildup on the border with Ukraine, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying in Kyiv earlier Wednesday that Russia could invade "on very short notice."

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