NASA and SpaceX are in talks to assess the possibility of converting a Starship launch vehicle into a space station as the International Space Station (ISS) is expected to reach its operational end by 2030.
1. NASA’s Commercial Space Capabilities
The US space agency recently announced a partnership with US aerospace companies in order to meet future commercial and government needs, ultimately benefitting human spaceflight and the US commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) economy.
Through unfunded Space Act Agreements, the second Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities-2 initiative (CCSC-2) is designed to advance commercial space-related efforts through NASA contributions of technical expertise, assessments, lessons learned, technologies, and data.
Up until now, the space agency has divided awards totaling 415 million dollars to several private space station programs, including Blue Origin and Sierra Space’s Orbital Reef station, as well as Nanoracks’ Starlab. With the CCSC-2, NASA’s efforts have been extended to seven companies — Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc., Vast Space LLC, and SpaceX.
As part of the CCSC-2, NASA said it is considering collaboration with SpaceX’s Starship, particularly on an integrated LEO architecture to provide a growing portfolio of technology with near-term Dragon evolution and concurrent Starship development : “This architecture includes Starship as a transportation 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,” reads the press release.
If the idea gains shape, Starship could offer a wide variety of accommodations for on-orbit research and commercialization. Musk’s spacecraft as a space station would feature an impressive 9 meters diameter and it could fit up to 100 passengers at a time.
Starship is a fully reusable and super heavy-lift launch vehicle in development by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, in a bid to make human flight to Mars economically feasible. The first test flight happened on April 20 but several technical issues made SpaceX send a self-destruct command a few minutes after liftoff. A new launch is scheduled somewhere in late August. However, before the next Starship test flight can take place, SpaceX has to work with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to clear the rocket for launch. According to the agency, Starship will not be cleared until all systems that led to the April failure are certified not to be a hazard to public or environmental safety.
3. High payload & reduced operating costs
Starship’s main features are its very high payload mass capability and low potential operating cost. Its massive payload — as much as 150 tonnes — means that 5 Starship flights are likely to transport much more into space than the remainder of the world managed with 135 rocket launches in 2021. Its higher stage comprises extra pressurised quantity than the ISS, which took a decade, dozens of launches and around $100 billion to assemble. Both of its stages — super heavy booster and Starship spacecraft — use liquid oxygen and liquid methane as propellant.