Northrop space station
Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — NASA issued awards Dec. 2 valued at more than $400 million to three groups of companies to advance development of commercial space stations, keeping those efforts on track to succeed the International Space Station by the end of the decade despite skepticism from the agency’s inspector general.

NASA announced three funded Space Act Agreements as part of its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program, an initiative to support work on commercial stations that the agency hopes to have in place by late this decade, allowing it to transition from the ISS. The awards will allow the winning companies to mature the designs of their proposed stations through 2025.

The largest award, at $160 million, went to a team led by Nanoracks and includes Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. Those companies announced a space station concept called Starlab Oct. 21 that could be ready as soon as 2027.

A second award, valued at $130 million, went to a team led by Blue Origin for the Orbital Reef space station announced Oct. 25. That project includes Boeing, Redwire and Sierra Space, among others, with a goal of entering initial operations in the latter half of the 2020s.

The third award, worth $125.6 million, went to a previously undisclosed concept from Northrop Grumman. That proposed station would leverage the company’s work on the Cygnus cargo spacecraft, Mission Extension Vehicle satellite servicing program and the Habitation and Logistics Outpost module it is building for NASA’s lunar Gateway.

Rick Mastracchio, director of business development for human exploration at Northrop Grumman, said in a call with reporters that a single launch could place in orbit a facility able to support four people, with the ability to expand. “This allows for low risk and rapid deployment,” he said. The station, which he said doesn’t yet have a name, is being developed with Dynetics, with others to be announced in the near future.

NASA selected the three concepts from 11 proposals the agency received in August. “Almost all of the proposals represented viable concepts for commercial LEO destinations,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters, in the call.

All the bidders and others will be eligible to compete for the second phase of the program in the middle of the decade, where NASA will issue contracts to certify commercial space stations for use by NASA astronauts and purchase initial services from those stations.

The program is part of NASA’s overall strategy to retire the ISS while maintaining a presence in LEO for scientific research and preparation for missions beyond Earth. That strategy includes an award made to Axiom Space in early 2020, giving that company access to a port on the ISS to which the company plans to attach a series of commercial modules starting as soon as 2024. Those modules will eventually be detached from the ISS to form a commercial station.

Axiom said in a statement that it did not submit a CLD proposal. “With active hardware development on pace to meet a late 2024 delivery to orbit of the first Axiom Station module and strong support from the market already in hand, Axiom declined to bid on CLD,” the company said.

The announcement came two days after a report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) that warned of a gap between the end of the ISS and commercial stations. The report said that while NASA’s initial efforts to support commercial stations “show promise,” it raised concerns about several aspects of that work, including cost and schedule.

“In our judgment, even if early design maturation is achieved in 2025 — a challenging prospect in itself — a commercial platform is not likely to be ready until well after 2030,” the report stated. “We found that commercial partners agree that NASA’s current timeframe to design and build a human-rated destination platform is unrealistic.”

McAlister said he agreed with many of the conclusions of the OIG report. “What they said primarily is that a gap in U.S. human presence in LEO would be disastrous for the LEO economy,” he said. “A gap would be bad, and that is exactly why we’re making these awards today, to help ensure that there is no gap.”

The winning companies reiterated their confidence that their stations would be ready before the end of the decade. “The technologies, the equipment, the habitats that we are using for Starlab are under development today,” said Kirk Shireman, a former NASA ISS program manager now at Lockheed Martin. “I believe it’s certainly feasible to meet the schedule we’ve laid out with NASA.”

“There are two pieces to an end-to-end service: there’s transportation and destination,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin. The transportation systems that Orbital Reef will rely on, including Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser, will be in service in the next few years. “And with respect to the destination systems, we’re building already.”

He added the importance of addressing another issue raised in the OIG report: uncertain NASA funding for the CLD program. “It’s very important that we all work on sustaining and growing stakeholder for what NASA is trying to do,” he said. “It is critically important that the West not lose its foothold in LEO and have a gap.”

NASA requested $101.1 million for commercial LEO development in its fiscal year 2022 budget proposal. A House bill provides about half that amount while a Senate bill would fully fund the program. Congress has yet to finalize spending bills for the fiscal year, which started Oct. 1.

McAlister said the CLD awards assume that NASA receives full funding for commercial LEO development in 2022 and later years. That budget proposal projected spending $186.1 million on commercial LEO development per year in fiscal years 2023 through 2026. If there is a funding shortfall, “we could rephase some of the milestones to accommodate reduced levels of funding.”

He added that, in the near term, a continuing resolution (CR) passed by Congress Dec. 2 funding the government through Feb. 18 at 2021 levels should not affect the CLD awards, although the agency may have to revisit those plans if Congress later extended the CR through the rest of the fiscal year. “If we got a full-year CR,” he said, “we would obviously have to do some replanning.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...