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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

Exclusive: Texas nonprofit got massive border contract after hiring Biden official

Migrants attempting to enter the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Photo: David Peinado/Xinhua via Getty Images

A Texas nonprofit that recently hired a Biden transition official got a contract worth as much as $530 million to help manage the influx of migrant children at the southern border, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The contract is by far the largest ever awarded to Family Endeavors. It's potentially worth more than 12 times the group's most recently reported annual budget — a sign of the demand the new work will place on its operations.

1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Exclusive: $1 million ad buy defends Georgia law to business critics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A leading conservative group is targeting the business community with a seven-figure ad buy on CNBC and local TV defending Georgia's new voting law from its corporate critics, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: By focusing on the C-suite through a network it watches, Heritage Action for America is offering a rejoinder to some companies — even Major League Baseball — after they waded so prominently into politics.

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