When the time comes to kill the International Space Station, NASA has no plans to replace it. The agency has just announced its intention to outsource future developments to private companies and to retain a role as a mere user of what it calls in its CLD terminology: “Commercial Low Orbit Destinations”.
Over time, it is desired that the private initiative be the one that creates small (or not so small) orbital laboratories, from industrial facilities for the manufacture and processing of materials to the “space hotels” of which you have always dreamed.
There are precedents already. Space X has been providing launch services for years, both to NASA and private companies, and has even put military payloads into orbit subject to serious classified restrictions. Blue Origin just signed an agreement with NASA to launch a probe to Mars next year, using its New Glenn superrocket, which has yet to fly.
NASA intends to be the private initiative that creates small orbital laboratories. It could be industrial facilities or even the “space hotels” of his dreams
In 2016, another company – Bigelow Aerospace – sent an inflatable module to the space station, a kind of sphere with a diameter of three meters that can be attached to the “Harmony” section of the ISS, the part that always faces Earth. And here he goes. Bigelow ceased operations in March 2020, a victim of pandemic restrictions, and ownership of the unit was transferred to NASA, which continues to fund maintenance.
Inflatable structures are not as fragile as they might seem. It’s made of a fabric similar to the Kevlar found in bulletproof vests, and its many layers provide good radiation protection. There are projects to use them to build mini-hotels for space tourists. For the time being, docking with the International Space Station has taken place, but in the future, once they are equipped with power generation systems, they can detach and fly autonomously.
NASA’s current proposal focuses on owners of future space stations that provide full services, from training astronauts to flying them into orbit, survival and returning to Earth. Also, managing what he euphemistically calls “incidents”: how to respond to unexpected failures during launches or operations in space, including the participation of NASA personnel in rescue missions.
In her role as a customer, NASA estimates that she may require between 3,000 and 4,000 man hours per year to perform, at most, about 230 experiments. This means taking about 5 tons of equipment into orbit the size of a pickup truck and returning the processed material to Earth. Like any customer, costs will be covered by the agency, but responsibility for operations will rest with the station owner under the supervision of NASA technicians.
NASA estimates between 3,000-4,000 man hours per year, to run a maximum of 230 experiments. This means taking 5 tons of equipment into orbit the size of a truck.
The requirements document specifies that the habitat should allow people to wear shirt sleeves, a quiet environment to facilitate sleep and relaxation, eliminate odors, and a suitable kitchen for preparing hot meals and exercise equipment (necessary in microgravity situations). And also other details such as that astronauts must have toothbrushes and toothpaste, and systems for collecting physiological residues, such as cut nails or hair; Internet access, email, movies, games and digital books. In addition, they should have a special compartment for storing personal items: photographs, jewelry (which will be more appreciated later, being “in space”) and, if necessary, a guitar or saxophone.
Curiously, NASA’s requests don’t include an egress air lock, though they acknowledge that it would be beneficial to perform repairs outside the ship and that some systems would be needed to expose the experiments to a vacuum and retrieve them later.
What lies behind these detailed specifications is that NASA is well aware of the challenges that the future holds in the not so long term. The International Space Station is not the only space station. China has its own Tiangong, which has already been completed and put into operation. It’s much smaller in size, like the old Russian Salyut and Mir, but it’s more modern and still open for future expansion.
China has not yet brought astronauts from other countries to its station, though it has offered through the United Nations Space Agency to host science experiments for anyone interested. Some Western companies have already accepted the offer at the expense of the capabilities provided by the International Space Station.
In the future, the use of outer space may be the new scenario in which multi-million dollar projects are being built.
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