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How many space stations need this planet?

At one end of Bigelow Aerospace's factory is a mock-up of a terrific home for future astronauts. With a unique…

At one end of Bigelow Aerospace’s factory is a mock-up of a terrific home for future astronauts. With a unique design it can be packed into a rocket, and then dragged into space – it would conveniently accommodate a dozen people as a space station or serve as a building block of a moon base.

“It will be a monster spacecraft according to current standards,” said Robert T. Bigelow, the company’s name founder, at a press conference in February. This is Olympus, named after the mythological homes of the Greek gods and a measure of Bigelow’s ambition to build settlements in space.

Down the factory floor is a long, narrow metal structure. This is a developmental version of the backbone of a more modest B330 module, which the company is actually planning to build. Little in appearance compared with Olympus, it would still be much less crowded than the metal cans that make up the international space station.

Bigelow says he is determined to have two B330 ready ready to start in 2021

, a step that may be a harbinger of the half-century displacement of human spacecraft as a monopoly of state-run bodies like Nasa into a capitalist freedom for all. The Trump administration wants to speed up the transition by ending direct federal funding of the space station after 2024.

“We also want many vendors competing for cost and innovation,” said Jim Bridenstine, Nasa administrator recently. If commercial stations are cheaper to work, Nasa will have more money to drive other goals, like sending astronauts to the moon and Mars, says Bridenstine.

But betting hundreds of millions of dollars on non-existent companies can prove to be a quick way to lose a fortune. And space travel is still a dangerous avocation that can kill some people who make the trip. Bigelow acknowledged that he is not sure he will be able to find customers for his B330s. If there is no market, “then we should stay,” he said.

Home Office in circulation

Today, the International Space Station (ISS) is the only place where people – no more than six at a time – live away from the earth. It’s a technical tour the force and the most expensive man ever built. The 15 nations, led by the US and Russia, have spent more than $ 100 billion over two decades. The US spends $ 3 billion to $ 4 billion each year.

Continuously busy for almost 18 years, ISS serves as a test bed to study long-term effects of radiation and weightlessness on astronauts. Nasa has become adept at driving it, largely eliminates disturbances like clogged toilets, balky cooling systems and crashing computers. Perhaps most noteworthy, life on ISS has become unremarkable: it’s a home office, albeit more than 200 miles up and traveling at 17,000 mph, where astronauts work, eat, sleep, practice, control experiments, perform chores. Only occasionally exercise crew activities as a spacecraft that really seems to be out of this world.

The possibility of retiring with ISS, part of the administration’s budget request, scared many. Companies like Bigelow are years from launching their space stations, and such expensive pioneering projects often leave behind the plan. Critics are worried that ISS can be discarded before its successor is ready. A gap without space stations would interfere with Nasa’s studies, as well as new commercial efforts. Nouveau space station companies could go crazy if the hoped customers are slow to pop up.

Two decades ago, there was a commercial space station for a short time. It was Russian, and an American named Jeffrey Manber ran it. Perhaps it could have been successful – but Nasa killed it.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Russian space program was attached to money and willingly contemplate ideas that might have seemed crazy for an ex-communist country. Mir, the Russian space station, was seen as ramshackle and dated, to be replaced by bigger, better ISS.

But Manber and other American entrepreneurs saw Mir more like a fixer-upper. Energia, Mir’s manufacturer, agreed to collaborate with the Americans to create MirCorp, a commercial company that rented the station from Russia. But the Russians gave Nasa insistence on dumping Mir, operated in the Pacific 2001.

Today, Manber has shed a successful niche as Executive Director of NanoRacks, a small Houston-based start, which has simplified the process of sending experiments to space station and also launch small satellites called CubeSats.

A few years ago, Manber asked his engineers to look for an idea Nasa had previously rejected: can using rocket parts left in the circulation transform into a cheap space station? NanoRacks, co-operating with United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, won a Nasa contract to explore the idea, focusing on the second phase of ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket. The idea is to add a small robot module between the second stage and the satellite load on top. For Manber, the key is flexibility. “The market will tell the market,” he said. “So we go with it.”

Reasons to Go Private

The third major player in the private space station is Axiom Space, headquartered in Houston. CEO Michael T. Suffredini, who ran NASA’s part of the International Space Station until retiring in 2015, said an Axiom station would cost about $ 50 million a year to push a small portion of what ISS costs.

“We have done a lot of work to validate that number. It’s also a shocking figure for us,” says Suffredini. “Lower costs give opportunity for profit.”

Suffredini would not describe in detail all possible markets that he predicts, but the business would include sending the rich sightseeing tours – Philippe Starck, the superstar French designer, designs the interior of the Axiom module – and offers a factory area for manufacturers who want to produce materials that can only be manufactured in space. “I’m sure we can pull out our business plan, “said Suffredini.

But not everyone is convinced. Paul K. Martin, Nasa’s Inspector General, issues a report describing these issues this year.” We specifically question whether there is a sufficient business situation where private Companies will be able to develop an independent and profitable business regardless of significant federal funding within the next six years One, “he said.

China plans to end its own space station in the early 2020s, and officials have promised to make it available to researchers around the world. Russia has also talked about maintaining its half of ISS. Space experts, even those who enthusiastically hope that Nasa will take a more commercial approach, hesitates to predict when putting people into space becomes economically profitable for private companies.

Charles Miller, former Nasa official, now president of Nexgen Space, expects that there will be three space stations in orbit in 2025: ISS, the Chinese station and the beginning of a commercial. “We still have furious debates about the future of ISS,” he said.

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