With several companies sending tourists into space on brief flights, Nasa is in the mood to capture the new sector. The American space agency has awarded $415.6 million to billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, stalwart contractor Northrop Grumman Corp and venture-backed Nanoracks to develop a privately-owned space destination.

These destinations will be commercial space stations that will serve more purposes than just being a research laboratory outside of the planet. Instead, they will be top-end destinations for tourists, filmmakers, and researchers working on industrial experimentation. The plans come as the International Space Station (ISS) enters its final round of operations with its continuous ageing equipment showing several signs of degradation.

“Nasa seeks to maintain an uninterrupted US presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the International Space Station to other platforms. These awards will stimulate US private sector development of commercial, independent space stations that will be available to both government and private-sector customers,” the agency said in a statement.


Nasa said that the contracts are the first in a two-phase approach to ensure a seamless transition of activity from the International Space Station to commercial destinations. The agency gave $130 million to Bezos led Blue Origin, which has partnered with Sierra Space to develop Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station to be built in low-Earth orbit, which will start operating in the second half of this decade.

“No one knows how commercial LEO markets will develop, but we intend to find out,” Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin, said in a statement.

Houston-based Nanoracks won the largest award, at $160 million, to build a commercial low-Earth orbit destination known as Starlab in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. Nasa said that Starlab is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity. The station will be designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman bagged $125.6 million to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond the initial design. This Space Act Agreement will enable Northrop Grumman to provide detailed commercialisation, operations, and capabilities plan, as well as space station requirements, mission success criteria, risk assessments, key technical and market analysis requirements, and preliminary design activities.

Northrop Grumman vice president for civil and commercial space Steve Krein told Reuters that their “station will enable … sustainable commercial-based missions where Nasa does not bear all the costs but serves as one of many customers.”

Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is part of Nasa’s broader efforts to build a robust low-Earth orbit economy, including supporting commercial activity and enabling the first private astronaut mission to the space station. By transitioning to a model where commercial industry owns and operates the assets in low-Earth orbit and where Nasa is one of many customers, the agency can save on costs to live and work in low-Earth orbit and focus on pushing innovation and exploration of the Moon and Mars,” Nasa said in a release.


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