The space station race

“NASA wants to get out of the expensive business of running the ’90s-era space station. The ISS is the size of a football field and costs as much as $4 billion annually to operate, and NASA estimates that relocating its astronauts to commercial alternatives could save about $1 billion every year. Newer space stations will be smaller than the ISS and include newer tech, and NASA would only need to pay for the portion that it uses. And once these replacements are launched into orbit, the space agency can finally dispose of the ISS.

“We’re looking at ISS technology that was designed beginning in the ’80s, built in the ’90s, and launched in the ’90s and 2000s,” Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies, told Recode. “This is definitely aging.”

The plan is to deorbit the ISS right over an area called Point Nemo in the South Pacific Ocean, which is the world’s farthest point from land. This will be a delicate process, and could take up to three years. After letting gravity pull the ISS downward to a critical height of 155 miles above Earth, NASA will organize one final flight to remove any remaining research (or astronauts). Soon afterward, ISS operators will use a cargo spacecraft to push the ISS into the atmosphere. While most of the space station should burn off, “a number of high-density payload and structural components” are likely to break through intact, according to NASA spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.”

Jeff Bezos wants a low-orbit office park to replace the ISS

“After more than two decades in orbit, NASA is preparing to retire the International Space Station. The habitable satellite only has permission to operate until 2024, and while it’s likely that the space station’s funding could be extended until 2028, NASA plans to decommission the ISS and find a replacement by the end of the decade. Cue Jeff Bezos.

The billionaire’s spaceflight company, Blue Origin, has released its proposal for a new, commercial space station called Orbital Reef. With the help of several other companies, including Sierra Space and Boeing, Blue Origin plans to build a satellite that’s slightly smaller than the ISS and houses up to 10 people. The design includes desk space, computers, laboratories, a garden, and 3D printers. The goal, the company says, is to bring the “mixed use business park” concept into orbit and lease out office space to interested parties, including government agencies, researchers, tourism companies, and even movie production crews.”

“NASA doesn’t mind the corporate takeover of low-Earth orbit. The agency’s first space station, SkyLab, was only in orbit for a few months before NASA let the vehicle descend and decompose into the atmosphere. The space agency has been weighing defunding the ISS, which is full of aging hardware, for several years, and has already set aside up to $400 million to fund new, privately built and operated space stations through its Commercial LEO Destinations program. Eventually, NASA hopes that it can send its astronauts to these stations instead of paying to maintain the ISS. Overall, the plan could save the government more than $1 billion every year.”

“”Having these commercial space stations will be a way of America keeping their foot in low-Earth orbit while focusing more of their resources on moon and Mars exploration.””

“Blue Origin isn’t the only company vying to replace the ISS. About 12 other firms have already sent space station proposals to NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program.”

“For NASA, it’s also critical that at least one of these companies succeeds, and the agency told Recode it could fund up to four of the proposals. After all, time is running out on the ISS, where malfunctions and outdated technology and equipment are common.”

The Private Space Race

“Zubrin once worked at Lockheed Martin, where he once discovered a way for a rocket to carry twice as much weight. “We went to management, the engineers, and said, ‘Look, we could double the payload capability for 10 percent extra cost.’ They said, ‘Look, if the Air Force wants us to improve the Titan, they’ll pay us to do it!'”

NASA was paying contractor’s development costs and then adding 10 percent profit. The more things cost, the bigger the contractor’s profit. So contractors had little incentive to innovate.”

“Even NASA now admits this is a problem. During its 2020 budget request, Administrator Jim Bridenstine confessed, “We have not been good at maintaining schedule and…at maintaining costs.”

Nor is NASA good at innovating. Their technology was so out of date, says Zubrin, that “astronauts brought their laptops with them into space—because shuttle computers were obsolete.”

I asked, “When (NASA) saw that the astronauts brought their own computers, why didn’t they upgrade?”

“Because they had an entire philosophy that various components had to be space rated,” he explains. “Space rating was very bureaucratic and costly.”

NASA was OK with high costs as long as spaceships were assembled in many congressmen’s districts.

“NASA is a very large job program,” says Aerospace lawyer James Dunstan. “By spreading its centers across the country, NASA gets more support from more different congressmen.”

Congressmen even laugh about it. Rep. Randy Weber (R–Texas) joked, “We’ll welcome (NASA) back to Texas to spend lots of money any time.””

“Twenty years ago, at Lockheed Martin, Zubrin had proposed reusable boosters. His bosses told him: “Cute idea. But if we sell one of these, we’re out of business.”

Zubrin explains, “They wanted to keep the cost of space launch high.”

Thankfully, now that self-interested entrepreneurs compete, space travel will get cheaper. Musk can’t waste a dollar. Space X must compete with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and others.”