First company steps forward to compete for ISS seed dollars

One or more stations must be in orbit by 2028 to avoid research gap

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Nine days ago, NASA outlined plans to spark the development of one or more privately owned space stations to pick up where the International Space Station will leave off, and now a company has publicly outlined its bid: Sierra Nevada Corp.

SNC plans to erect a multi-module station and offer its in-development Dream Chaser spaceplanes to ferry cargo, private citizens and astronauts to and from it, executives said during a Wednesday webcast from the company’s Louisville, Colorado, facility. SNC plans to submit the concept for consideration under NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations initiative, in which NASA intends to seek proposals in May for free-flying space stations. The agency would distribute $400 million in seed money among two to four winners who would be selected sometime between October and December.

Time is of the essence. U.S. lawmakers have so far said they will continue funding ISS operations through 2024, although NASA wants Congress to extend that funding through 2028.

SNC plans to assemble its station in orbit by 2028 from multiple Large Inflatable Fabric Environment, or LIFE, habitats, a technology that the company has yet to test in space. The cylinder-shaped modules would be composed of Vectran fibers, polymer and nylon, and would be joined with each other via connecting nodes. Supplies and crew members would arrive through multiple docking ports.

Before launch, each habitat would be shrunken into a 4-meter-long parcel that would fit in any rocket with a 5-meter payload fairing. The modules would be inflated on orbit through a means SNC has not specified. Once inflated, each 8-meter-long cylinder would be roughly as long as a three-story building, with a volume of 300 cubic meters.

The exact size of the space station will be dictated by customer demand, John Roth, vice president of development for SNC’s Space Systems division, told reporters Wednesday during the webcast. “We could easily grow this capability from one node to a dozen nodes,” Roth said, using node as a synonym for module.

Regardless of size, the cost of building and launching the SNC Space Station “won’t be anywhere near” the $150 billion price tag to build and assemble ISS, Roth said, but he declined to give a more exact figure.

Part of that cost savings comes from the head start SNC has on designing and building some of the hardware, he said. SNC delivered a full-scale mockup of a LIFE habitat to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2019, when the agency was considering the habitat for its lunar Gateway space station. Later this year, that prototype will be shipped to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. There, SNC technicians will explore various layouts for the habitats, which could range from crew quarters to dedicated facilities for on-orbit manufacturing.

In parallel, SNC continues to refine the second component of its all-in-one LEO system: the design for a crew variant of its reusable Dream Chaser spaceplanes. Plans call for building a fleet of the spaceplanes on which SNC would book rides to the station for crew members or science experiments, though other companies and governments would be able to dock their capsules with the station as well.

“Think of us as your space travel agent,” president and co-owner Eren Ozmen said during the briefing.

But before SNC can begin construction of the crew variant of Dream Chaser, the company must complete construction of the first cargo vehicle, Tenacity. That spaceplane is scheduled for launch in 2022 aboard the second United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. SNC technicians in Louisville, Colorado, are currently installing the thermal tiles that would shield the spacecraft from the searing heat and friction of atmospheric entry and are scheduled to attach the wings in mid-2021.



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Human Spaceflight
A Large Inflatable Fabric Environment, or LIFE, habitat. Sierra Nevada Corp. says its space station will be comprised of several of the habitats. Credit: Sierra Nevada Corp.

Vulcan Centaur