On June 15, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced its intention to partner with seven U.S. aerospace companies in order to advance human spaceflight and the commercial low-Earth orbit economy.
The agency stated in a press release that these partnerships — done through the second Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities-2 initiative (CCSC-2) along with unfunded Space Act Agreements — are designed to ultimately benefit commercial space-related efforts through NASA contributions. This will include the sharing of technical expertise, data, assessments, and other technologies.
With NASA oversight, these commercial projects will have a greater opportunity to meet future needs from the private and government sectors, in the name of fostering a robust and sustainable low-Earth orbit ecosystem.
In selecting proposals, NASA evaluated their relevance towards achieving the agency’s goals and the overall feasibility of each company’s business and technical approach. Each company will also put forth its own development costs into their respective projects.
The seven companies selected through the CCSC-2 program are as follows: Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space Corporation, SpaceX, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc., and Vast Space LLC.
Blue Origin’s proposal highlights the development of an integrated commercial space transportation capability, intended to ensure affordable and high-frequency U.S. access to low Earth orbit for both cargo and crew missions.
This likely pertains to the use of orbital-class launch systems such as the heavy-lift New Glenn — currently in production and set to conduct its maiden launch no earlier than 2024 — and orbital spacecraft like Boeing’s Starliner and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane, among others.
As with their suborbital New Shepard rocket, Blue Origin is designing New Glenn to be crew-rated, enabling it to support human spaceflight missions. The company has previously stated that space tourism flights on New Glenn would also be offered, with New Shepard astronauts getting first access.
Past work on orbital subsystems once saw Blue Origin developing their own crew-capable spacecraft, with the biconic Space Vehicle competing under NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) initiative. It is unknown whether any similar projects are currently in the works.
New Glenn’s pace of development has picked up in recent months, with imagery captured by NSF photographers showing visible progress at Blue Origin’s Exploration Park campus at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation’s collaboration with NASA involves the company’s development and use of the Persistent Platform concept — seemingly a new addition to their list of technologies.
The Persistent Platform will be designed to provide autonomous and robotic capabilities for commercial science research and in-space manufacturing.
The concept envisions the use of Northrop Grumman’s existing Cygnus cargo transportation spacecraft as part of a free-flying mission, with additional photovoltaic solar panels and a satellite bus attached to facilitate these added capabilities.
The satellite bus appears to be based on another existing technology developed by the company in the ESPAStar platform, which is capable of accommodating several combinations of hosted and separable payloads on a single bus.
According to Northrop Grumman, the ESPAStar system is mainly optimized for geostationary orbit missions, but is adaptable for missions to low-Earth orbit.
The system has been proven on multiple launches, such as STP-3 in December 2021, USSF-44 in November 2022, and USSF-67 in January 2023, respectively. These spacecraft were flown under the Long Duration Propulsive ESPA (LDPE) name, with future missions taking on the designation ROOSTER (Rapid On-Orbit Space Technology Evaluation Ring).
Other details on the Persistent Platform, including additional features and development timelines, have yet to be publicized by Northrop Grumman.
Sierra Space Corporation will partner with NASA in the evolution of the company’s commercial low-Earth orbit architecture, including next-generation space transportation, in-space infrastructure, and expandable facilities tailored to host a human presence.
This includes variations of the company’s Dream Chaser spaceplane and the Orbital Reef project, announced in 2021 as a commercially developed, owned, and operated space station in cooperation with Blue Origin, Boeing, Redwire Space, and other partners.
One of Sierra’s major contributions to Orbital Reef is the Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module — an inflatable habitat module akin to Bigelow Aerospace’s Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), currently under NASA ownership at the International Space Station (ISS).
LIFE is designed with a high-strength Vectran fabric weave, and can inflate on-orbit to a diameter of 27 feet to create a living and working area for crews of up to twelve astronauts. The module also features a closed-loop life support system and an Astro Garden to facilitate plant growth.
The Dream Chaser spacecraft — currently in development — will support both crew and cargo missions to Orbital Reef, with the uprated DC-200 variant being used primarily for crew transport. The DC-200 is approximately 40% larger than the current DC-100 cargo-only version of Dream Chaser, and is a winged spaceplane rather than a lifting body. The first launch is tentatively scheduled for no earlier than 2026.
The first flight of Dream Chaser to the ISS, featuring the DC-101 Tenacity vehicle and the Shooting Star cargo module, is currently set to take place no earlier than 2024 atop a United Launch Alliance Vulcan Centaur rocket. Construction of the DC-102 spacecraft (yet to be named) is also underway.
SpaceX’s proposal selected by NASA sees the utilization of an integrated low-Earth orbit architecture, featuring the company’s super heavy-lift Starship vehicle as a focal point.
This architecture includes Starship as a means of transportation and an in-space LEO destination element supported by the Super Heavy booster, the Dragon spacecraft, and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet constellation, along with other items such as crew and cargo transport and communications.
Having Starship serve as a destination could imply that SpaceX plans to use it as a LEO outpost, given its large internal volume and the future ability to facilitate long-duration missions. However, the specifics of this proposal have yet to be revealed.
This would be an added capability for the Starship vehicle, already built to host large-scale satellite and crew launches, point-to-point transportation flights on Earth, space tourism (such as the dearMoon mission), lunar landings under NASA’s Artemis program, and much more.
SpaceX conducted its first integrated test flight of Starship on April 20 this year, and is currently working on improvements to the Starbase launch site in Boca Chica, Texas ahead of future launches. The company plans on using prototype vehicles Ship 25 and Super Heavy Booster 9 for the second flight test, set to occur sometime later this year.
Once Starship reaches orbit, SpaceX will transition operations toward satellite launches featuring Starlink payloads and other demonstration missions, such as a cryogenic propellant transfer demonstration in Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s proposal also highlights the usage of Dragon, with a particular focus on the spacecraft’s near-term evolution. The current version of Dragon is adaptable for both crew and cargo missions, either to low-Earth orbit destinations such as the ISS or as solo flights like Inspiration4.
The Starlink system is also mentioned in SpaceX’s proposal, with an emphasis on providing communications and ground support.
Special Aerospace Services
Special Aerospace Services (SAS), based in Boulder, Colorado, is a tactical engineering and advanced manufacturing business. Founded in 2007, the company has served as a contractor for NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) for over a decade.
Their latest partnership with NASA will see SAS design a robotic in-space servicing technology, known as the Autonomous Maneuvering Unit (AMU). This, along with an Astronaut Assist-AMU, will enable the safer assembly, servicing, retrieval, and inspection of in-space low-Earth orbit systems.
The AMU will feature its own propellant system, similar in design to the U.S. Air Force’s Astronaut Maneuvering Unit — planned to be tested during the Gemini program but never used — and the NASA Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) that was used on three Space Shuttle missions in 1984.
In the modern era of spaceflight, NASA astronauts utilize a smaller means of self-propulsion during spacewalks with the SAFER system (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue), though it is only meant to be used in case of emergency. The newer AMU could serve in a similar capacity during EVAs outside commercial space stations, when not in autonomous use.
ThinkOrbital Inc. of Lafayette, Colorado, is a space infrastructure startup company founded in early 2021 with the goal of developing large-scale, multi-mission platforms for in-space manufacturing and debris removal.
Their collaboration with NASA will focus on the development of the company’s ThinkPlatforms and CONTESA (Construction Technologies for Space Applications) — self-assembling, single-launch, large-scale orbital spacecraft that can facilitate a number of activities in low-Earth orbit.
ThinkOrbital’s roadmap lists several variations of their ThinkPlatform, which features a spherical habitat module that can be assembled in space with a robotic arm and operate either as a component of a larger commercial space station or docked to another vehicle like SpaceX’s Starship, as shown in various renders.
These platforms can have several use cases, including servicing, refueling/propellant storage, private space tourism, and commercial science research.
The CONTESA project features welding, cutting, inspection, and additive manufacturing technologies, meant to aid in large-scale in-space fabrication of materials.
In September 2022, ThinkOrbital — along with Redwire Space and the Arizona State University — won a research contract award totaling $250,000 under SpaceWERX’s Orbital Prime initiative for in-space service assembly and manufacturing (ISAM) capabilities, and recently received an additional $250,000 grant from the Colorado state government to accelerate progress.
The company plans to design, build, test, and launch two in-space additive manufacturing demonstration missions within 14 months.
Vast Space LLC will collaborate with NASA on technologies and operations required to develop and operate the company’s microgravity and artificial gravity space stations. This includes the Haven-1 outpost and Vast-1, the first crewed mission to the station.
Haven-1 — recently announced in May 2023 and currently targeting an August 2025 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket — will initially act as an independent commercial space station, with the ability to host a crew of four astronauts for up to 30 days and featuring an internal pressurized volume of 70 cubic meters.
Once launched, Haven-1 will be later used to host the crew of Vast-1, set to arrive in a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. The mission will feature a mixture of private individuals and agency-affiliated astronauts, and will support additional research and in-space manufacturing opportunities.
Haven-1 will serve as a microgravity environment in low-Earth orbit, with the added ability to simulate lunar gravity by slowly spinning the spacecraft. Such experiments will be conducted by the crew of Vast-1.
The company has stated its long-term goal is to create a large-scale, multi-module artificial gravity station at 100 meters in length, consisting of seven modules launched by SpaceX Starship vehicles and assembled on-orbit.
(Lead image: Artistic render of a ThinkOrbital ThinkPlatform docked to a SpaceX Starship vehicle. Credit: ThinkOrbital)