NASA has been throwing around the idea of leasing the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial entities when it finally surpasses its usefulness to the space agency in the mid 2020’s, but it would seem that the space agency has already started taking baby steps in this direction.
According to a press release from NASA, the first commercial airlock could be added to the ISS as soon as 2019 thanks to the acceptance of a proposal from NanoRacks. According to the statement, NanoRacks is working closely with Boeing to produce an ISS-compatible airlock that will help push the ticket for commercial presence on the space station in coming years.
Image Credit: NanoRacks/NASA
Among the things the airlock could be used for are commercial research, technological demonstration, and storage among other things. It would serve as the launching pad for all kinds of CubeSats and other payloads that companies might pay to have hauled up into space.
It’s very much a small preliminary step in terms of commercial presence on the ISS, but it’s sure to help transition it into something NASA eventually envisions it to become – a place for commercial organizations to start their initial footprints in space while the space agency moves on to bigger and better things, like habitation on Mars.
“We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation,” said Sam Scimemi, director of the ISS Division at NASA. “We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”
So how will the airlock get to the ISS? According to the statement, it’s expected to launch aboard a commercial resupply mission in 2019; perhaps aboard a commercial rocket, like those by SpaceX. When it arrives, it will be attached to the tranquility module, the same place where the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) is currently residing in testing as the first every expandable storage module on the ISS.
Although these are still baby steps in expanding commercial presence on the ISS, NASA is openly reviewing all commercial requests to use it. While not all requests will be granted in the near future, that’s not to say things won’t change in the next decade.
Commercial space presence is expected to help catapult mankind into the next era, increasing the way we learn about space and potentially even opening up new doors to space experimentation and manufacturing. Soon, we might even have more than one space station orbiting the planet, as interest from commercial organizations to build their own space stations is also growing.