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NASA urged to avoid space station gap

NASA needs to ensure that commercial space stations are ready before the International Space Station is retired to avoid a “space station gap” with geopolitical consequences, industry officials and other advisers warn.

NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization strategy calls for the development of one or more commercial space stations by late this decade, allowing NASA to transition research currently done on the ISS to those facilities and then retire the ISS, likely around 2030. NASA is currently evaluating an estimated 10 to 12 proposals submitted by companies seeking one of several Commercial LEO Development (CLD) contracts for initial studies of commercial stations.

That transition “will allow NASA to shift significant financial and personnel resources towards exploration objectives,” said Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS program at NASA Headquarters, at a Sept. 21 hearing of the House space subcommittee on the topic. That includes a roughly two-year transition period where NASA will shift activities from the ISS to those commercial stations.

At the hearing, another witness warned of the consequences of retiring the ISS before commercial successors are ready. “The challenge to ensure a seamless transition is more urgent today than with the shuttle time, as our reliance on space assets is far greater today and others seek to fill even the perception of any voids,” said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, a company that seeks to develop a commercial space station. “There is no room for error lest we cede leadership to other nations.”