ISS set for first commercial airlock for external payloads and cubesats

by Chris Bergin

The International Space Station (ISS) is set to gain another addition in 2019, with the announcement of a milestone being achieved with the goal of launching a commercial airlock for installation on the Tranquility module. The airlock – in association with NanoRacks and Boeing – will be used for deploying external payloads and cubesats.

New Airlock:

The goal of fostering commercial use of the orbital outpost is a major goal for NASA, now the Station is in the utilization phase after years of assembly.

2016-06-06-135336Some signs of that aim being achieved are being seen, such as the recent addition of the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM). However, the stewards of the ISS are hoping to increase commercial interest via Request For Information (RFI) solicitations.

It was one of those RFIs that laid the foundations for the new airlock, with NanoRacks signing a Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA last year.

Progress was announced on Monday when NanoRacks announced an independent partnership with Boeing to develop the airlock.

“Once NanoRacks successfully completes the phases outlined in a Space Act Agreement NanoRacks signed with NASA in 2016, the agency has committed to install the airlock for commercial use, research, and technology demonstrations from the International Space Station,” NASA added on Monday.

NanoRacks are already an active partner with the Station, mainly via the deployment of cubesats from dispensers lofted to the Station on resupply ships. Currently, cubesats and small satellites are deployed through the government-operated Japanese Kibo Airlock.

However, demand for small satellite deployment has increased over recent years. Monday also saw the announcement that RSC Energia of Russia will be deploying cubsats during Progress resupply missions.

NanoRacks are taking this a stage further, with what will be the first commercially funded airlock on the Station.

“This is a huge step for NASA and the U.S. space program, to leverage the commercial marketplace for low-Earth orbit, on Space Station and beyond, and NanoRacks is proud to be taking the lead in this prestigious venture,” noted NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber.

The airlock will likely ride in the trunk of a future Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Dragon spacecraft, as was the case with the BEAM, ahead of being removed via the Station’s robotic assets and installed on the Tranquility module. Its location will provide for good visual observations for the crew conducting the deployments, via the windows on the Cupola module.

The current schedule shows a window in 2019 for the launch and installation of the new airlock. Once installed, the ISS crew will be able to assemble payloads typically flown in soft-stowage ISS Cargo Transfer Bags into larger items that currently cannot be handled by the existing Kibo Airlock.

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“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,” added Sam Scimemi, director, ISS Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”

The NanoRacks Airlock Module will be both a permanent commercial uncrewed module onboard International Space Station, and also a module capable of being removed from the space station and used on a future commercial platform.

Boeing will fabricate and install the Airlock’s Passive Common Berthing Mechanism (PCBM), which is used to connect most pressurized modules of the ISS – and is the most critical piece of hardware for the airlock.

The PCBM hardware is being manufactured at the Boeing facilities in Huntsville, Alabama. Boeing will also provide additional engineering services required for developing and manufacturing of the airlock.

“This partnership is an important step in the commercial transition we’ll see on the ISS in coming years,” noted Mark Mulqueen Boeing ISS program manager. “Utilizing a commercial airlock to keep up with the demand of deployment will significantly streamline our process.”

ATA Engineering, of San Diego, California will lead the structural and thermal analysis, testing services and support of the airlock.

“The NanoRacks Airlock Module is the next logical step in the successful line of NanoRacks’ commercial payload facilities,” noted Brock Howe, NanoRacks’ Head of Airlock. “This Airlock Module will provide a broad range of capabilities to our payload customers and expand greatly on the commercial utilization of the Station – and I look forward to leading the team at NanoRacks on this next venture.”

(Images via NASA and NanoRacks – new lead image via Nathan Koga’s L2 ISS renders).

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