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.”

Bezos Launching Into Space Will Probably Make Your Life Better Too

“Private spaceflight, which is currently accessible only to those who can fork over a cool $28 million or who were born a billionaire’s baby brother, may someday be a feasible vacation option for people who don’t have such wealth. But even if it doesn’t pan out that way, the technologies created by billionaires’ space fantasies will propel many of us, rich and poor alike, to better standards of living in ways we haven’t yet fully realized.
As NASA fans constantly tell us, the agency’s spinoff technologies have improved the world. Sensors developed to measure and remove harmful moon dust have since been used to better detect air pollution here on Earth; advances in aerodynamics have made semi-trucks faster and more fuel-efficient than before; a more durable polymer material developed by NASA scientists is now used for hip replacements. It’s easier than ever to get hot water on demand, to fly airplanes, and to get a life raft that will actually deliver you to safety if you’re stranded at sea.

But a scientist need not be a public employee to make discoveries that better mankind. Musk and Bezos are competing to develop a satellite internet service that could drastically improve internet access and speed for unserved parts of the globe. SpaceX has been focused on improving the reusability of rocket components (while spending a fraction of what it would cost NASA to put similar rockets into flight), making space exploration cheaper and less wasteful.”

The falling Chinese space rocket is a policy failure

“Why is it possible for China, or any other space-faring nation, to launch massive rockets and let them fall to earth willy-nilly?

The answer to that is policy failure: Despite regulations on space flight and conduct, the issue of rocket reentry is loosely and poorly regulated, so countries cut corners and take their chances that a falling rocket won’t hit anything major.”

“In the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and Liability Convention of 1972 are guidelines for how to punish a country that lets one of its rockets cause damage on Earth. Basically, those rules say that the offending state can be held liable by the victim nation. So, in this case, if the Chinese rocket were to land in the middle of New York City (which, again, is extremely unlikely to happen), the Biden administration could ask China to pay for damages and demand other recourse.
In other words, this is a state-to-state issue. “If the rocket lands on my house, I can’t go and sue China,” Northumbria’s Newman told me. That’d be UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s job to call up Chinese President Xi Jinping.

But that’s really it. There’s nothing in international law to stop any nation from letting any of the 900 rockets currently in orbit from falling in an unplanned way. “This isn’t illegal,” Newman said about the current saga of the Chinese rocket. “There is no sort of regulation on an international level on reentry.””

Is America Too Bound by Red Tape to Support Space Entrepreneurs?

“As the test flights continue, so do disputes between SpaceX and the FAA.

“Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” Musk protested before the SN9 launch. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

The SpaceX founder isn’t alone in pointing out that regulators haven’t kept up with the times when it comes to the changing nature of ventures into space.

“The era of commercial space travel and the rise of abundant spacefaring nations has led to an increase in space activity, which has outpaced international space laws—laws that were originally imagined for state-sponsored space travel in an arena with only two spacefaring states,” Juan Davalos wrote in a 2015 article for Emory International Law Review.

“Existing space law has not kept up with the growth in the private sector, and the United States lacks a comprehensive regulatory regime,” Brianna Rauenzahn, Jasmine Wang, Jamison Chung, Peter Jacobs, Aaron Kaufman, and Hannah Pugh chimed in last summer in the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s The Regulatory Review.

Worse, the regulatory regime that the U.S. does have, inherited from an era of government-dominance of space, lends itself (as do all intrusive rules) to abuse. That can come from “you will respect mah authoritah” resentment of anybody who bucks bureaucracy. But it can also reflect government seat warmers’ discomfort with the unfamiliar and threatening world of private entrepreneurial activity.”

“even the FAA’s political masters recognize that the agency needs to change. The FAA is under orders “to streamline the regulations governing commercial space launch and reentry licensing” under rulemaking that “replaces prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria.”

But there’s no assurance that “streamline” means easing regulation rather than making it more restrictive.”

The Israeli-Arab Extraterrestrial Accords

“The Abraham Accords, signed September 15, formally normalized Israel’s relationship with both Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. While geopolitical concerns have dominated both the substance of the accords and media coverage of the deal, the signatories also pledged a “common interest in establishing and developing mutually beneficial cooperation in the field of exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” which may include “joint programs, projects, and activities.

Both Israel and the United Arab Emirates have thriving space programs. The Israeli Space Agency, founded in 1982, has launched a number of satellites—most notably, in 2019, the Beresheet Lander to the moon. Co-designed and built by the Israeli companies SpaceIL and Israeli Aerospace Industries, Beresheet was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and made it all the way to the Moon for less than $100 million dollars.

Unfortunately, the Beresheet lander crashed into the lunar surface due to a mechanical error. Still, the fact that the Israeli Space Agency was able to get that close is significant. The only other nations who have been able to get that close to the lunar surface are the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians.

The Emirati space program is significant too. Currently rocketing its way from Earth to Mars is the Al-Amal (Arabic for “Hope”) satellite, which launched in July. It is expected to arrive in February, when it will begin to investigate Martian weather patterns.

It is too soon to know how the accord will affect the two space programs. But on August 17, before the Abraham Accords were signed, Israeli Minister of Science and Technology Izhar Shay said that cooperation was “imminent” and that “[t]he infrastructure is there for the commercial engagements for the sharing of know-how and mutual efforts.””