You’ve probably heard of SpaceX’s plans to use its giant new Starship vehicle to land humans on the Moon and Mars, send countless Starlink satellites or large telescopes into space, or perhaps even serve as a high-speed point-to-point terrestrial transport for equipment or people.
There’s another application for SpaceX’s Starship architecture that the company is studying, and NASA is on board to provide expertise. While still in a nascent stage of technological development, the effort could result in a repurposing of Starship into a commercial space station, something NASA has a keen interest in, as there are no plans for a government-owned research lab in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station is decommissioned after 2030.
The space agency last month announced a new set of agreements with seven commercial companies, including SpaceX. The Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program is an effort designed to advance the development of emerging private sector products and services that may be available to customers, including NASA, in about five to seven years.
This is separate from funded agreements NASA signed in 2021 with three industry teams led by Nanoracks, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman, each working on their own concepts for a commercial space station. Another company, Axiom Space, is contracted by NASA to develop a commercial module to be added to the International Space Station, with the goal of eventually using it as the centerpiece for a private complex in low Earth orbit.
NASA has rejected SpaceX’s bid for a funded space station development deal in 2021, citing concerns, among other things, about SpaceX’s plans to scale up its life support system to accommodate long-duration missions and SpaceX’s plan for a single docking port. The space agency is not providing funding for the new CCSC effort, which includes the Starship space station concept, but the government will support the industry with technical expertise, including expert assessments, lessons learned, technologies and data.
Aside from the SpaceX agreement, NASA said it will provide non-financial support to Blue Origin’s initiative to develop a crewed spacecraft for orbital missions that would launch on the company’s New Glenn rocket. The agency is also supporting Northrop Grumman’s development of a human-powered low-Earth orbit research platform to operate alongside the company’s planned space station.
The other companies NASA selected for unfunded deals were: Sierra Space’s proposal for a manned version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft, Vast’s concept for a private space station, ThinkOrbital’s plan to develop welding, cutting, inspection and additive manufacturing technology for in-space construction work, and Special Aerospace Services to collaborate on an autonomous maneuvering unit to assist or potentially replace spacewalkers working outside of a space station.
Despite the lack of NASA funding, the new partnership announcement with SpaceX – broadly at least – outlined one of the directions SpaceX Starship might want to take. NASA said it will work with SpaceX on an “integrated low-Earth orbit architecture” that will encompass the Starship vehicle and other SpaceX programs, including the Dragon crew capsule and the Starlink broadband network.
“This architecture includes Starship as a destination element for transportation and in low Earth orbit space, supported by Super Heavy, Dragon and Starlink, and constituent capabilities including crew and cargo transport, communications, and operational and ground support,” NASA said.
Early days still
SpaceX’s Starship program moves forward primarily on billions of dollars in private funding. The rocket is designed to eventually be fully and quickly reusable, with a 33-motor booster stage dubbed Super Heavy and an upper stage – itself known simply as Starship – to accelerate into orbit. Once in space, the Starship could deploy a payload of up to 150 tons or be refueled by a tanker – also based on the Starship design – for expeditions to more distant destinations such as the Moon or Mars.
Starship is made of stainless steel and is about 50 meters high with a diameter of 9 meters, wider than the fuselage of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Before SpaceX can move forward with demonstrating orbiting refueling, the Starship lunar module, or any Starship-based space station, the company needs to get the rocket into orbit. The first full test flight in April failed to reach space, but SpaceX officials were pleased with the lessons learned and are preparing for another test flight that will attempt to reach near-orbital speed later this year.