You’ve probably heard about SpaceX’s plans to use the giant new Starship vehicle to land people on the Moon and Mars, send more Starlink satellites or large telescopes into space, or perhaps serve as high-speed point-to-point terrestrial transportation for equipment or people.
There is another application for SpaceX’s Starship architecture that the company is studying, and NASA is on board to lend expertise. Despite a new stage of technological development, the effort could result in the transformation of the Starship into a commercial space station, something that NASA is very interested in because there is no plan for a government-owned research laboratory in low Earth orbit after the International Space Station is decommissioned after 2030.
The space agency announced last month a new round of agreements with seven commercial companies, including SpaceX. The Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program is an effort established to promote the private sector’s development of new products and services that can be used by customers—including NASA—in approximately five to seven years.
This is different from the funded agreements that NASA signed in 2021 with three industrial teams led by Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman, each working on their own concepts for a commercial space station. Another company, Axiom Space, has a contract with NASA to build a commercial module to be added to the International Space Station, with the goal of eventually using it as the center of a privately owned complex in low-Earth orbit.
NASA passed SpaceX’s bid for a funded space station development agreement in 2021, citing concerns about SpaceX’s plans for scaling its life support system to enable long-duration missions and SpaceX’s plan for a space station, among other issues. The space agency is not providing any funding for CCSC’s new effort, which includes the Starship space station concept, but the government will support the industry with technical expertise, including expert assessments, lessons learned, technology, and data.
In addition to the SpaceX agreement, NASA said it will provide non-financial support to Blue Origin’s initiative to develop crewed spacecraft for orbital missions that will be launched on the company’s New Glenn rocket. The agency is also supporting Northrop Grumman’s development of a manned research platform in low Earth orbit to work with the company’s planned space station.
Other companies selected by NASA for unfunded contracts are: Sierra Space’s proposal for a crewed version of its Dream Chaser spacecraft, Vast’s concept for a privately owned space station, ThinkOrbital’s plan to develop welding, cutting, inspection, and additive manufacturing technology for construction work in space, and Special Aerospace Services for collaboration on an autonomous maneuvering space station, a work unit of except outside.
Despite NASA’s lack of funding, the new SpaceX collaboration announcement outlined—in broad strokes, at least—one of the directions SpaceX wants to take Starship. NASA said it will work with SpaceX on an “integrated low-Earth orbit architecture” that includes the Starship vehicle and other SpaceX programs, including the Dragon crew capsule and Starlink broadband network.
“This architecture includes the Starship as a transport and in-space low-Earth orbit destination element supported by Super Heavy, Dragon, and Starlink, and constituent capabilities including crew and cargo transportation, communications, and operational and ground support,” NASA said.
It’s still early days
SpaceX’s Starship program is primarily funded by billions of dollars in private funding. The rocket is designed to eventually be fully and rapidly reusable, with a 33-engine booster stage called Super Heavy and an upper stage—known only as Starship—to accelerate into orbit. Once in space, the Starship can deploy a payload of up to 150 metric tons or be refueled by a tanker vehicle—also based on the Starship design—for expeditions to more distant destinations such as the Moon or Mars.
The Starship is made of stainless steel and measures about 164 feet (50 meters) long with a diameter of 29.5 feet (9 meters), wider than the fuselage of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Before SpaceX can move on to demonstrate in-orbit refueling, the Starship lunar lander, or a Starship-based space station, the company must get the rocket into orbit. The first full-scale test flight in April did not reach space, but SpaceX officials are happy with the lessons they learned and are preparing for another test flight that will try to reach near-orbital speeds later this year.