NASA picks 7 companies to advance commercial space capabilities
NASA has partnered with seven companies to help advance commercial orbital capabilities to meet the agency’s needs while building up a commercial low Earth orbit economy.
The seven companies are Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Space Corporation, SpaceX, Special Aerospace Services, ThinkOrbital Inc. and Vast Space LLC. Each is partnering with NASA via unfunded Space Act Agreements — meaning no funds are exchanged — and are contributing different aspects of a future low Earth orbit economy.
For its part, NASA will offer contributions by way of technical expertise, assessments, lessons learned, technologies and data, the agency said.
“It is great to see companies invest their own capital toward innovative commercial space capabilities, and we’ve seen how these types of partnerships benefit both the private sector and NASA,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in an agency news release. “The companies can leverage NASA’s vast knowledge and experience, and the agency can be a customer for the capabilities included in the agreements in the future. Ultimately, these agreements will foster more competition for services and more providers for innovative space capabilities.”
This is being done under a second “Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities” initiative, or CCSC-2. The goal, according to NASA, is to advance commercial space-related efforts through contributions by the agency.
NASA said it chose these specific companies based on an evaluation of their relevance to achieving the space agency’s goals in low Earth orbit, as well as the companies’ ability to follow through with funding and a realistic business model.
Blue Origin, based out of Kent, Washington, will be working with NASA to help develop an “integrated commercial space transportation capability” with the goal of safe, affordable and high-frequency U.S. access to orbit for both crew and other missions.
While specifics weren’t released, this likely involves the company’s New Glenn rocket, which looks to debut sometime next year at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Blue Origin also has a huge facility under construction just outside the Kennedy Space Center perimeter on Merritt Island.
Blue Origin’s ambitions include New Glenn, a potentially larger rocket called New Armstrong, and a low Earth orbit space station called Orbital Reef. The company was also recently awarded a contract to be a second Human Landing System provider for NASA’s Artemis program.
Dulles, Virginia-based Northrop Grumman’s collaboration with NASA with regard to CCSC-2 is on the company’s “Persistent Platform to provide autonomous and robotic capabilities for commercial science research and manufacturing capabilities in low Earth orbit.”
Not a lot is known about this, but based on the company’s concept art for the program, it includes cygnus-based architecture.
Sierra Space Corporation, operating out of Broomfield, Colorado, will be collaborating with NASA specifically on the development of its planned commercial orbital ecosystem, which includes inflatable space station habitats, cargo space planes and eventual crewed space planes.
“Sierra Space is building the in-space infrastructure and end-to-end business platform to accelerate the new space economy,” said Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space, in a company statement. “This agreement with NASA enables active collaboration to share our expertise and findings as we conduct the formative work that will open the door to extended human missions to space.”
Sierra Space is partnered with Blue Origin on that company’s Orbital Reef project and is under contract with NASA to send a cargo space plane called Dream Chaser to the ISS as early as 2024.
Not surprising on this list is SpaceX of Hawthorne, California. NASA is looking to collaborate with the company to build out an integrated ecosystem in low Earth orbit that uses cargo Dragon, Crew Dragon, Starship and Starlink.
For Starship, the agency is looking at both in-space destination elements as well as transportation.
A company called Special Aerospace Services of Boulder, Colorado, is looking to work with the U.S. space agency to help develop an in-space servicing technology with propulsion and robotic technology.
Called the Autonomous Maneuvering Unit, or AMU, it could be used remotely as well as an astronaut assist AMU for commercial in-space servicing or other use-cases such as inspections and retrievals, according to NASA.
Perhaps the most ambitious in this list is ThinkOrbital, based in Lafayette, Colorado. It plans to collaborate with NASA on the development of “ThinkPlatforms” and CONTESA, which stands for Construction Technologies for Space Applications.
NASA said ThinkPlatforms would be self-assembling, single-launch orbital platforms for a multitude of use cases for robotic and creed missions. CONTESA, meanwhile, would feature “welding, cutting, inspection and additive manufacturing technologies” as aids in large-scale in-space fabrication.
Finally, the last on the list is Long Beach, California-based Vast Space, which recently announced its intention to launch a small space station called Haven-1 atop a Falcon 9 rocket as early as August 2025.
Vast’s collaboration with NASA will be for technologies and operations required for microgravity and artificial gravity stations. Haven-1 will primarily be a microgravity station, but the company’s future goals include “Starship-class” modules that could be large enough to spin and produce effective artificial gravity for its occupants.
Video courtesy of NASA
Over the last decade, NASA has been working to foster a low Earth orbit economy to take the place of the aging International Space Station while expanding humanity’s capabilities circling Earth and eventually beyond.
As low Earth orbit becomes more commercialized, NASA can be a customer for commercial destinations while the agency focuses the bulk of its resources and efforts on deep space destinations, such as the Moon for the Artemis program and eventually beyond to Mars.
And as NASA sets up Moon stations and bases, it plans to bring commercial and international partners along with it so that the endeavor of human space exploration can become more sustainable as the agency expands deeper into the solar system.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.