What will life in orbit look like after the ISS? NASA hands out new space station contracts

The end is coming, and nobody wants a homeless 'naut

NASA has splashed the cash on design contracts for space stations and a multibillion-dollar job for more Artemis boosters.

With the days of the International Space Station (ISS) numbered, NASA is looking to maintain an uninterrupted US presence in low-Earth orbit. Although Axiom Space has plans to build from the ISS, the $415.6m award is about developing space station designs and "other commercial destinations in space."

Blue Origin, which has partnered with Sierra Space to develop the Orbital Reef, received $130m. Nanoracks, which is working on a commercial low-Earth orbit destination called "Starlab" (with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin), received $160m, and Northrop Grumman's Cygnus-based station received $125.6m. The Cygnus currently does duty as a freighter for the ISS.

The awards are the first in a two-phase approach intended to keep astronauts in space as the ISS programme winds down. The first phase is expected to continue through 2025. Hopefully no one will explode any more satellites nearby before then.

As well as the space station award, Northrop Grumman also won the $3.19bn Booster Production and Operations Contract (BPOC) to build boosters for NASA's troubled Artemis Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. The company has already constructed hardware for the first three missions and is in the process of casting the motors for the fourth.

The contract was originally awarded in June, and includes production and operations for boosters for Artemis IV to VIII as well as work needed for the Booster Obsolescence and Life Extension (BOLE) for Artemis IX. The BOLE boosters are to replace the steel cases from the Space Shuttle days with stronger composite parts. Sadly, the parachutes that permitted the reuse of the Space Shuttle boosters do not look set to return.

Development for BOLE is under way. In a second test this week, a 2ft-diameter subscale example was fired up by engineers in Huntsville, Alabama, to evaluate insulation formulations. A third test is scheduled for 2022 and a full-scale BOLE motor test tentatively set for spring 2024 at Northrop Grumman's test facility in Utah.

With the period of performance running to 31 Dec 2031, it assumes an optimistic flight rate for the rocket, particularly as the first SLS has yet to reach the launch pad. ®

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