- NASA plans to award up to $400 million to companies that want to build private space stations.
- From about a dozen proposals, NASA aims to pick two to four by the end of the year, CNBC reported.
- NASA hopes to be one of many customers on these private stations after the International Space Station retires.
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NASA is preparing to award up to $400 million to companies that want to build their own space stations.
The agency has relied on the International Space Station (ISS) for 20 years, but it won't last forever. NASA expects to retire the ISS by the end of the decade, eventually emptying it and pushing it into Earth's atmosphere to burn up.
NASA doesn't want to build a new space station itself. Instead, it's turning to private companies, offering them contracts to build their own stations through a program called Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destinations.
That program has "received roughly about a dozen proposals," Phil McAlister, NASA's commercial-spaceflight director, told CNBC reporter Michael Sheetz. NASA plans to pick two to four of those proposals by the end of the year and distribute up to $400 million in contracts between the winners, according to CNBC.
"We got an incredibly strong response from industry to our announcement for proposals for commercial, free fliers that go directly to orbit," McAlister told CNBC. "I can't remember the last time we got that many proposals [in response] to a [human spaceflight] contract announcement."
Operating the ISS currently costs NASA about $4 billion per year. Buying facilities on larger stations operated by private companies could save the agency more than $1 billion per year, McAlister said.
NASA declined to name the companies that submitted proposals, citing a "blackout" period while it evaluates them. But more than 50 entities expressed interest when the program was announced, including SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, and Airbus, according to Sheetz. McAlister said the current proposals come from a mix of legacy spaceflight companies and startups.
"We are making tangible progress on developing commercial space destinations where people can work, play, and live," he told CNBC.
NASA used a similar contest to encourage commercial spaceships
NASA took a similar approach when it sought a replacement for the Space Shuttles: It offered funding to companies to develop and build new spaceships. The agency's Commercial Crew Program chose SpaceX and Boeing out of a group of proposals and funded each to develop new human-rated spaceships. Last year, NASA estimated that program would save it $20 billion to $30 billion.
SpaceX's Crew Dragon ship is the product of that program, and it's now regularly flying astronauts to and from the ISS for NASA. It also just flew its first tourists on a mission that did not involve NASA beyond the use of its launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida. SpaceX has another private mission lined up in January, in which it's set to fly four people to the ISS for the company Axiom Space.
Private companies have also developed the vehicles that carry cargo to the ISS for NASA. As it does with all of these spaceships, NASA hopes to be one of many customers paying for space on future space stations. That's partially why its contracts won't fully fund their development.
"Going forward, we do not anticipate paying for the entire commercial destinations. We don't think that's appropriate, as the companies are going to own the intellectual property and they're going to be able to sell that capability to non-NASA customers," McAlister told CNBC.
There are already new space stations in the making. China launched the first piece of its own space station earlier this year, and just completed its first three-month astronaut mission there last week. NASA, meanwhile, has already awarded Axiom Space $140 million to fly modules up to the ISS that will eventually detach from it to become their own space station. Axiom aims to launch its first module in 2024.