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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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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

Virginia governor orders probe into pepper-spraying of Army officer

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam at the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va. in 2019. Photo: Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced Sunday he's ordered the state police to conduct an independent investigation into a traffic stop during which two officers pepper-sprayed and drew guns on an Army lieutenant.

Driving the news: Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino, is suing the police officers over the incident, which attracted widespread criticism after video footage emerged. Northam said in a statement he found the incident "disturbing" and that it angered him.

Biden pollster urges blunt tax talk

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The top pollster for Joe Biden's presidential campaign is advising the White House to do something that often makes Democrats nervous: Talk loudly and proudly about raising taxes on the rich.

Why it matters: John Anzalone tells Axios his extensive polling and research has found that few issues receive broader support than raising taxes on corporations and people earning more than $400,000 a year.

On the front lines of the growing border crisis

A migrant mother and her children sit in the dirt at a temporary processing center under the Anzalduas International Bridge in McAllen, Texas. Photo: Stef Kight/Axios

At night, parents with young children march through the brush after crossing the Rio Grande River in the pitch black. By day, unaccompanied kids arrive at shelters, in one instance 17 of 17 testing positive for COVID-19.

Driving the news: Axios accompanied a delegation of Republican lawmakers to South Texas last week — followed by a unilateral visit to El Paso — to see in real-time the challenges fueled by a border surge, the effects of actions taken by the previous administration, and the lagging response by the new one.

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