A NASA security advisory board has warned that the agency may not be able to transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations in time to avoid leaving a void in the US presence in low Earth orbit, or LEO.
NASA presented its plans earlier this year to exploit the international space station (ISS) through the end of this decadehow it will be deorbit it in a fiery death. NASA is currently supporting the development of commercial stations to maintain US access to orbit, but there are concerns that they may not be ready by the time the ISS retires.
According to a Space News report (opens in a new tab) citing a July 21 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Security Advisory Panel (ASAP), the group now warns of a “precarious trajectory” in which there may not be enough time or resources to make the transition. before retiring from the ISS. “It’s a concern for us,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the ASAP panel who spent decades at the Department of Defense.
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One of the issues threatening to drive a wedge between the ISS and the commercial stations that might follow is the funding that such a transition would require. It is also unclear how NASA would be able to guarantee that there would be enough initial business to fully fund station operations through commercial investment alone.
If interest is low, NASA may need to find funds to serve as a “bridge” while commercial stations begin operations. “NASA really needs to recognize and plan for the underlying reality that maintaining a continued human presence in orbit now and in the future will require significant government investment,” said ASAP panel member Amy Donahue, who is also provost at the Coast Guard Academy. in Connecticut, reports Spacenews.
In December 2021, NASA awarded three contracts totaling $415.6 million to Blue Origin, Nanoracks LLC, and Northrop Grumman as part of a program aimed at financing and developing commercial space stations. The agency hopes to reach the preliminary design review stages of each of the proposed space station concepts, including discussion of their potential customers and destinations, by the end of fiscal year 2025, in September 2025.
NASA has already partnered with Axiom space to launch commercial modules to the ISS, the first of which will launch in 2024 if the proposed schedule holds, and possibly detach to fly solo.
These aren’t the first concerns expressed by NASA advisers about the risk of a gap between the ISS and anything that might follow. And NASA has painfully experienced such shortcomings in its operations before, something the agency wishes to avoid repeating.
“We experienced a gap in our transportation system when we retired the shuttle that we do not wish to repeat with our American human presence in low Earth orbit,” said Robyn Gatens, NASA director for the ISS, during a hearing in September 2021.
“That’s why NASA is committed to an orderly transition of operations from the ISS in LEO to US-provided commercial destinations in low Earth orbit,” she added. “We cannot have a gap in US human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.”.