A NASA security advisory panel has warned that the agency may not be able to switch from the International Space Station to commercial space stations in time to avoid creating a gap in America’s presence in low Earth orbit, or LEO.
NASA earlier this year laid out its plans for operating the International Space Station (ISS) through the end of this decadeat what point will it 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 these will not be ready by the time the ISS is retired.
according to a SpaceNews report (opens in new tab) Citing a July 21 meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), the panel is now warning of a “dangerous trajectory” that may not have enough time or resources to transition before the ISS is retired. “This is an area of concern for us,” said Patricia Sanders, chair of the ASAP panel, who has spent decades at the Department of Defense.
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One of the issues that threatens to create a gap between the ISS and commercial stations that may follow is the funding such a transition would require. It’s also unclear how NASA could guarantee that there would be enough initial business to fully fund the stations’ activities through commercial investment alone.
If interest is low, NASA may need to find funds to serve as a “bridge” while the commercial stations begin operations. “NASA really needs to recognize the underlying reality and plan that maintaining a continued human presence in orbit will require significant government investment now and in the future,” said ASAP panel member Amy Donahue, who is also a 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 in a program to finance and develop commercial space stations. The agency hopes to reach the preliminary design review stages for each of the proposed space station concepts by the end of fiscal year 2025, in September 2025, including discussing their potential customers and goals.
NASA already has a partnership with axiom space to launch commercial modules to the ISS, the first of which will launch in 2024 if the proposed schedule is met, and eventually undock for solo flight.
These aren’t the first concerns NASA advisors have expressed about the risk of a gap between the ISS and what may come next. And NASA has previously had painful experiences with such gaps in its operations, something the agency wants to avoid.
“We identified a gap in our transportation system when we decommissioned the shuttle that we do not wish to repeat with our US human presence in low Earth orbit,” said Robyn Gatens, NASA director for the ISS. during a hearing in September 2021.
“Therefore, NASA is committed to an orderly transition from ISS operations in LEO to commercial US-provided targets in low Earth orbit,” she added. “We cannot have a gap in American manned spaceflight in low Earth orbit.”