The (Near) Future of Commercialized Space Stations

Article Written by Brandon Sit for NewSpace Chicago

The future of human residence in space is going to be on commercial space stations like the Axiom Station. The ISS could be retired in 2024 with NASA and international partnership expiring that year. Operations on the ISS with current capabilities are limited until 2028 when it will be then decommissioned unless further supported. But the ever expanding space industry around the globe cannot solely rely on using, supporting, and maintaining the ISS. Some modules on the ISS go back to 1998, in those twenty three years to now there’s been significant advancements in technology that could benefit human spaceflight.

The next chapter in orbital human spaceflight will be on next generation commercial space stations. Private companies like Axiom are planning on replacing the ISS with their own designed and manufactured space stations. Axiom’s plan is to send their own station modules into low earth orbit and attach them to the ISS for the time being and quickly accumulate their modules to form the Axiom Station while being hosted by the ISS. At the time of the ISS’s retirement, the Axiom Station is to disembark and exist on it’s own to provide a variety of services, some that the ISS lacked.

With the ISS set to retire in the year 2024, the need for commercial space stations is set to expand to fill this void. The ISS has been crucial in furthering scientific developments in space by hosting science experiments in microgravity including studying the effects prolonged life in microgravity have on people, an important aspect to consider when thinking about travel to another planet. Commercial space stations will serve as tourist hubs, science laboratories, and manufacturing environments.

Why Space Tourism?

Part of the attraction towards commercial space stations is driven by the emerging demand of space tourism. There should be no surprise that space tourism is going to be a hot market in the space economy. Proposed concepts to cash in on eager astronauts have been around for decades, going back to missions during the early 2000’s to the ISS which berthed seven wealthy cosmonauts. Richard Branson’s attempts to create a ride service through Virgin Galactic have been ongoing since its founding in 2005 and expects commercial flights to take place next year. Blue Origin has recently begun launching civilians like William Shatner and other paying guests to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere. Even rich people can get bored. So far the limits of space tourism is giving its patrons a brief stint in outer space or just to the edge which leaves the question, what’s next? Commercial habitable space stations are going to be the next step for prospective space tourists where they can stay in habitat modules that will act as a hotel room for its guests. Axiom plans to launch and attach its first module to the ISS in 2024, which they plan to inhabit with private astronauts.

Science Laboratories in Space

 The interest in space station laboratories has grown considerably since early experiments conducted on the ISS. The major advantage that space based laboratories have over conventional Earth based labs is the unique microgravity environment that is impossible to replicate. There have been advancements in studying the treatment of tough diseases because of the ability to manipulate cells in a microgravity environment. Living on the ISS is inherently a study on what happens to people living in space and there’ve been many significant findings towards understanding the human body with and without gravity. Opening up accommodations for astronauts widens the demographic of people in space which could provide insight on how space affects different people of different builds and backgrounds. Axiom plans to add a module in 2025 that should double the research capacity aboard the station. The capabilities of high tech research facilities in space could entice pharmaceutical companies to take an interest in utilizing commercial space stations. 

In Space Manufacturing

 A potential market for in space manufacturing could emerge because of a surging space ecosystem that could require tools and goods that would be more conveniently accessible from a space system instead of relying only on Earth resources and because of the microgravity environment. Having manufacturing capabilities in space enables longer duration missions because of the ability to have self-sufficiency and sustainable space systems rather than relying solely on Earth resources. If space missions are to be more viable and abundant, goods and services are going to need to be abundant and convenient which a space based manufacturing system creates. The Axiom space station plans to attach a research and manufacturing focused module in 2026. Commercial space stations having manufacturing capabilities enables companies to come in and try to capitalize on an expanding space market, possibly in need of replacement parts or tools for its astronauts. Space stations being assembled in low Earth orbit is a manufacturing feat in itself.

 Others in the Space

 One of the benefits of having a commercialized space station is it spurs on competition to innovate and create rivaling stations. The space race has already sparked so much innovation in science and technology, the ISS being one of these feats. The coming competition in the commercialized space market and emerging national and international space programs is going to drive a new wave of advancements.

Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada Corporation are planning their Orbital Reef space station which will be akin to commercialized property in space and as a habitat that will service the space tourism market. The Orbital Reef space station is planned to be operational in mid 2020s.

Nanoracks is designing its own space station, Starlab. Nanoracks has a history with the ISS going as far as having its own module attached to the ISS that provides a small satellite deployment service. Starlab is planned to be operational by 2027 and is provide the same commercial opportunities as its rival stations.

China has begun construction of the Tiangong Space Station and has launched and manned their initial module with plans to add two more modules by the end of 2022. The China Manned Space Agency has stated that they plan for their space station to research long term space missions and conduct science experiments aboard the station.

The Russian space agency Roscosmos, has unveiled their plans for a space station, the Russian Orbital Service Station that is to begin assembly in 2025. The ROSS is planned to serve as a replacement for Russian operationations aboard the ISS with upgraded capabilities compared to the ISS’s aging facilities.

NASA has plans for a lunar space station called the Lunar Gateway in collaboration with international partners. The mission is planned for 2024 and its purpose is to support further lunar and far from Earth missions. Additional modules are also planned to be attached over the 2020s.

As the ISS’s time comes to an end, the legacy it will leave behind will quickly come in and fill its shoes. The past ISS missions have taught us so much about space, our own planet, and the coming challenges its successors will tackle. With the diverse contributions towards human spaceflight and growing commercial interest in a viable space environment, the next generation of space stations are going to be a breeding ground for the next innovations in space.

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