Sierra Nevada Corp. is lifting the curtain higher on its vision for a space ecosystem featuring its orbital space planes and inflatable habitats — a vision that it says could become a reality by 2028 if NASA signs onto a public-private partnership.
This week’s big reveal at SNC Space Systems’ development center in Louisville, Colo., comes as NASA is seeking input about plans for putting commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, or LEO. NASA’s current plan calls for keeping the International Space Station in operation until at least 2028.
By the time the ISS is retired, the space agency would like to have other destinations available in LEO for astronaut training and research.
“Commercial destinations are a critical piece of our robust and comprehensive plan for transitioning low Earth orbit toward more commercial operations,” Angela Hart, NASA’s program manager for the Commercial LEO Development Program, said in a news release. “This strategy provides us and industry the best path for success.”
That’s where SNC hopes to fill a role. The company already has a deal with NASA to conduct at least seven resupply missions to the International Space Station, using an uncrewed version of its reusable Dream Chaser space plane. If all goes according to plan, the first of those flights would be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s next-generation Vulcan rocket in 2022.
SNC has continued to work on other elements of space infrastructure, including a crewed version of the Dream Chaser and inflatable modules that could provide living quarters in space or on the moon.
Steve Lindsey, a former NASA astronaut who now serves as senior vice president for strategy at SNC Space Systems, said he and his colleagues have been working on the infrastructure plan for years.
“We see the opportunity for a commercial ecosystem that can potentially service the entire world,” Lindsey told reporters during the March 31 briefing in Colorado. “The timing is perfect because of all the things that are going on in space and where NASA is, and where all our other partners are in their work.”
SNC’s modules would be delivered to orbit in their uninflated configuration, and then expanded to create three-story-tall, 27-foot-long habitats. Such habitats could be used for crew quarters, research labs, zero-gravity gardens for food production, in-space manufacturing facilities or even movie production studios.
A full-size ground prototype for what SNC calls its LIFE habitat has been developed with NASA funding, and it’s in the process of being transferred from Johnson Space Center in Texas to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for continued testing of its suitability for short-term and long-term habitation. The prototype is equipped with SNC’s Astro Garden system for growing food in space.
A future version of the habitat could conceivably be attached to the Gateway space outpost that’s expected to take shape in lunar orbit over the coming decade. It could also be used as an element of a transfer vehicle for trips to Mars or other deep-space destinations — or adapted for surface operations on the moon or Mars.
SNC’s chairwoman and president, Eren Ozmen, stressed that the Dream Chaser space plane and Shooting Star cargo carrier were essential elements of the company’s space infrastructure.
“There is no scalable space travel industry without a space plane,” she said in a news release. “Dream Chaser and its runway landing offer the scalable, preferred solution for humans and science in support of a vibrant LEO economy.”
John Roth, vice president of business development for SNC Space Systems, acknowledged that building a commercial space station is “not going to be inexpensive” but insisted that the cost to NASA would be a “small fraction of the price” it’d have to pay to build the station itself.
Roth voiced strong support for NASA’s plans to partner with space companies on future outposts in low Earth orbit, although he said NASA should be willing to spend more money on a shorter timeline to build those outposts. There’s a chance that problems on the aging International Space Station, such as the leaks that Russian cosmonauts have had to fix, could force an early retirement.
“The reality of space may decide when the ISS is retired,” Roth said.
NASA says it will release a draft announcement for proposals relating to Commercial LEO Development this month, and expects to issue the final announcement in May after receiving industry feedback. Awards for developing space station concepts would be made later this year, with a combined value of $300 million to $400 million. Preliminary designs would be due for review in 2025.
SNC is just one of several companies with an interest in building commercial space outposts with support from NASA. Other companies are thought to include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as Axiom Space, Bigelow Aerospace, Boeing, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman.