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Can NASA Build a New Space Station?

By Rich Smith – Dec 26, 2021 at 7:53AM

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Or a better question: Which company will build that station for NASA?

By 2023 (or 2024, or 2025, or maybe 2030, depending on whom you ask) you may look up into the night sky and see no International Space Station (ISS) flying above you. Russia, you see, keeps threatening to pull out of the project and take its space station modules with it -- and right now, ISS can't operate without them.  

On the other hand, Russia's Roscosmos space agency also just announced that it will launch up to four space tourism flights to the station annually for the foreseeable future, hoping to replace revenues lost when American astronauts switched from flying on Russian Soyuz rockets to flying on SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft instead.  

With this new development, it seems Russia's plans to abandon ISS, forcing NASA to find a way to keep the station running without Russia, are up in the air (so to speak). But even if Russia does stick around, when you consider that the ISS project began in 1998 with an expected service life of 15 years, the station's days are clearly numbered. Whether the actual end date is 2023, 2030, or somewhere in between, eventually ISS is going to go away.  

So what are we going to do when that happens?

Futuristic space station orbiting Earth.

Image source: Getty Images.

Calling all space companies

Apparently, we're going to build new space stations -- commercial space stations, built by companies you can invest in.

We know this because earlier this month, NASA picked three companies out of a field of 11 bidders and awarded them "Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development" contracts totaling $415.6 million in value. The lucky winners were:  

  • Aerospace and defense giant Northrop Grumman (NOC 0.92%), which won $125.6 million to develop a space station assembled from Northrop Cygnus cargo transport spacecraft.
  • Privately held Nanoracks, a subsidiary of Voyager Space Holdings, which was awarded $160 million to design a research-focused "Starlab" in cooperation with Lockheed Martin (LMT 0.09%).
  • And Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space tourism company, which got $130 million to help it get its planned "Orbital Reef" space station concept off the ground.

Mind you, none of these space station concepts are quite ready for prime time. Both Nanoracks and Blue Origin are looking to begin launching modules only in the second half of this decade -- but before 2030 -- while Northrop hasn't made a date for its space station public yet. But if these plans pan out, investors could soon have at least two publicly traded space station operators, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin -- and potentially three, should Blue Origin decide to IPO -- to choose from.  

What happens next

The contracts envision space station construction to proceed in two "Phases." In Phase One, the concept phase, the three main awardees will "formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs ... through 2025."

That accomplished, NASA will shift into Phase Two, in which it "intends to certify for NASA crew member use commercial low-Earth orbit destinations." (Implied, but strangely not stated outright in NASA's announcement, is that for a "destination" -- a space station -- to be certified, it will presumably have to be built first.)

Still, assuming space stations are built and certified, NASA anticipates that going forward, it will pay contractors to host probably two NASA astronauts in low Earth orbit (LEO) more or less continuously. NASA will also lease space necessary to conduct "approximately 200 investigations annually to support human research, technology demonstrations, [and] biological and physical science" in orbit.

In this way, NASA hopes to ensure low-cost continued access to low Earth orbit for its needs while freeing itself to focus more intently on "its Artemis missions to the Moon and on to Mars." And with NASA guaranteeing it will remain a client for the foreseeable future, these companies can rest assured they'll have a revenue stream with which to pay back any investment they make in building the stations. 

That should make the decision to build the space stations a bit easier for the companies involved -- and give investors a better shot at one day owning a piece of a space station company (or three).

Rich Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Lockheed Martin. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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