The International Space Station, also known as the ISS, will be retired in 2028. By that time the oldest parts of the station will be thirty years old and dangerously deteriorated in the harsh environment of space. Having a space station is essential to continue research for the upcoming asteroid mission and an eventual Mars landing. But all of those things won’t get done before the ISS falls apart in 2028. So if we’re going to Mars, we need a replacement for the ISS.
So, no problem, you say. Let’s just build another ISS! Well the first one cost about $100 billion and had the Space Shuttle to help build it. We don’t have the Space Shuttle anymore and, while we learned a lot from ISS, no one really wants to spend $100 billion doing something we’ve already done. Especially if we’d rather spend most of our time and money getting to Mars.
Luckily, there is an alternative. When the Space Shuttle was cancelled, the U.S. still needed a way to get astronauts and their stuff to and from the space station. Rather than building a new Space Shuttle (or relying entirely on Russian rockets), NASA asked the private sector to find a solution. Rather than spending a ton of time and money doing something they’ve already done (build a rocket), they outsourced the project to the commercial sector. They called it Commercial Cargo and Crew.
And it worked! Cargo is now regularly delivered to the International Space Station on rockets that were developed entirely by the private sector. NASA pays only for the transportation services, not the maintenance costs. It’s sort of like a trucking company, but in space. Next year private companies will begin testing crewed capsules in order to send astronauts up to the station. All this costs way less than the Space Shuttle ever did.
So why not apply the same method to replacing the space station? There are a handful of companies who already have the capability to build commercial space stations. NASA should work with these firms now to define its needs and, if met, commit the funds currently used for ISS maintenance (over $3 billion in 2015) to pay for renting out space in the new commercial stations.
In fact, if ‘Commercial Station’ is as successful as Commercial Cargo and Crew were, there should be significant funding left over to transfer to the primary mission of NASA: getting astronauts on Mars. It will do this while continuing to provide a sustainable human outpost to support that mission.
Just as important, it will show that commercial vendors can operate safely and profitably in orbit. It will open space for other commercial ventures like space tourism, manufacturing, research and media. By promoting Commercial Station, NASA could jumpstart the orbital economy.
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