You may have heard about SpaceX’s plans to use its massive Starship vehicle to land people on the Moon and Mars, send more Starlink satellites or large telescopes into space, or even serve as a high-speed transport to space for equipment or people.
There is another construction project for SpaceX’s Starship that the company is studying, and NASA is there to lend expertise. Although still in the technical development phase, this effort could lead to the redevelopment of the Starship into a commercial space, something that NASA is very interested in because there are no plans for a government research laboratory in the lower reaches of the Earth Station after it is decommissioned after 2030.
The the space agency announced last month a new agreement with seven commercial companies, including SpaceX. The Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program is a project set up to advance the development of future products and services that will be available to customers – including NASA – for approximately five to seven years.
This is different from contracts that NASA signed in 2021 and three groups of companies led by Nanoracks, Blue Origin, and Northrop Grumman, each working on their own goals for the commercial space. 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 a special space station below Earth orbit.
NASA rejected SpaceX’s request for a contract to pay for the space station in 2021, citing concerns about SpaceX’s plans to expand its life support system to enable long-term missions and SpaceX’s plans for a single entry port, among other issues. The space agency is not funding CCSC’s new project, which includes the Starship space station concept, but the government will support the industry with technical expertise, including expert reviews, lessons learned, technologies, and data.
Aside from the SpaceX deal, NASA said it will provide non-financial support to Blue Origin’s mission to develop a space shuttle that will launch on the company’s New Glenn rocket. The agency also supports Northrop Grumman’s development of a manned research platform in the Earth’s orbit to work in conjunction with the company’s space station.
Other companies that NASA selected for unpaid contracts were: Sierra Space Concepts for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, Vast concept of personal space stationThinkOrbital’s plan to develop welding, cutting, inspection, and additional manufacturing technology in space construction, and Special Aerospace Services to collaborate on logistics
Despite the lack of funding for NASA, the new announcement of the partnership with SpaceX has been described – broadly, at least – as one of the statements that SpaceX would like to take on Starship. NASA said it will work with SpaceX on “low Earth orbit infrastructure” that includes the Starship vehicle and other SpaceX programs, including the Dragon crew capsule and the Starlink broadband network.
“The infrastructure includes Starship as a transport and low-Earth orbit platform supported by Super Heavy, Dragon, and Starlink, as well as the ability to integrate manned and transportation systems for cargo, communications, and operations and services,” NASA said.
The first days
SpaceX’s Starship program is moving forward largely with billions of dollars in private funding. The rocket was designed to be fully reusable and fast, with a booster stage of 33 engines called the Super Heavy and an upper stage – known as the Starship – to speed it to orbit. Once in space, the Starship can deliver up to 150 tons of cargo or be refueled by a tanker truck – and depending on the design of the Starship – on a journey to distant places like the Moon or Mars.
The star is made of stainless steel and is about 164 feet (50 meters) long and 29.5 feet (9 meters) in diameter, larger than the fuselage of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Before SpaceX can move to demonstrate refueling into orbit, the Starship lunar lander, or the Starship space launch pad, the company must ground the rocket. The first full-scale test flight in April did not reach space, but SpaceX officials were pleased with the lessons learned and are planning another test flight that will attempt to reach near-orbital velocity later this year.