Spaceflight Insider

NanoRacks airlock moving toward 2019 installation on the ISS

NanoRacks AirLock at NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory in Texas. Photo Credit: NanoRacks

Astronauts test the accessibility of handrails on the NanoRacks airlock mockup in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory. Photo Credit: NanoRacks

Five months ago, NanoRacks LLC announced that it would partner with Boeing to build the first private airlock for the International Space Station. That initiative is progressing and recently achieved a design milestone with the successful test of a NASA-built, full-scale mock-up at the Johnson Space Center in the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory (NBL).

The NBL features a 6.2-million-U.S.-gallon indoor pool, which is 10 times larger than a typical Olympic-size swimming pool. It contains full-size mock-ups of ISS modules and payloads, as well as space station visiting vehicles such as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

NanoRacks airlock

An artist’s rendering of the NanoRacks airlock attached to the Tranquility module. Image Credit: NanoRacks

The purpose of the NBL, which simulates the weightlessness of working in space, is to prepare for missions involving spacewalks. NASA team members use the NBL to develop flight procedures, verify hardware compatibility, train astronauts, and refine spacewalk procedures during a flight that are necessary to ensure mission success.

Recent tests involving the airlock confirmed that spacewalking astronauts will be able to successfully maneuver around the structure and mounted external payloads. Astronauts will be able to do this with the assistance of handrails, which will be strategically placed by the NanoRacks design team.

“The test lasted about two to three hours and went so well that we canceled the additional test time scheduled for the next day,” said airlock Project Manager Brock Howe. “In particular, we were able to validate the handrail locations.”

Howe said that all is progressing smoothly with the development of the NanoRacks airlock.

“We are still targeting launch in 2019 in a SpaceX Dragon trunk, and we’re thankful for the hard work involving all of our airlock partners, including our friends at Boeing, ATA Engineering, and Oceaneering,” Howe said.

NanoRacks’ airlock will be the solution to the constraints associated with the station’s only airlock system used for deploying CubeSats and other items into space.

That current airlock, located on the Japanese Kibo module, can only be opened 10 times per year, with only five of those allocated to NASA and commercial companies. The other five go to the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, which owns the airlock. Demand by both NASA and commercial companies now far exceeds that capacity.

The NanoRacks airlock, to be located on the port side of the Tranquility module, will measure roughly 6.6 feet (2 meters) in diameter and 5.9 feet (1.8 meters) long. It will be much larger than the existing Japanese airlock.

The private airlock will be able to discharge five times the volume of payload at a time. Additionally, it will be designed to accept components from outside of the ISS, components that might be in need of repair or adjustment.

ISS astronauts will be able to place payloads inside the airlock, close its hatch, depressurize it, and then detach it from the module using the station’s Canadian robotic arm. The arm will extend the airlock aft and 45 degrees down, and the CubeSats and other payloads will be deployed into orbit or tested in the vacuum of space.

NanoRacks airlock size

Image Credit: NanoRacks

Howe said NASA will provide an air save pump that will recover about 80–90 percent of the air evacuated from the airlock.

There are constraints on the frequency of opening the airlock and deploying payloads, however. Howe said the most significant of these is crew time, followed by the availability of the robotic arm and other activity outside the ISS. At this time, teams are planning for four to six per year, though he added there is talk of as many as 10–12 per year if justified by demand and allowed by crew schedules.

Abby Dickes, NanoRacks director of marketing, communications, and special events, said that there is considerable ongoing demand for CubeSat deployment. Over 180 have been launched to date, and NanoRacks has additional CubeSats included in the manifest for the upcoming OA-8 mission slated for September 2017.

Also, on the upcoming SpaceX CRS-12 mission in August, NanoRacks has 30 other payloads, including internal research and a Kaber satellite.

“We are looking pretty full,” said Dickes. “There are a few slots that are open in the next few launches, but the few that are left are filling fast. We operate on just about every U.S. mission launching to [the] ISS, so there are plenty of new flight opportunities coming up as new customers get signed on.”

The fee to deploy a 1U CubeSat going through the NanoRacks CubeSat Deployer is roughly $85,000. Internal payloads start at about $15,000. Dickes estimates that it takes about 12–18 months from the time a customer orders a CubeSat launch until it is deployed.

In addition to internal payloads aboard the ISS and externally-released CubeSats, NanoRacks offers a third alternative to its customers. The NanoRacks External Platform (NREP), manufactured by Airbus, was placed outside the ISS in August 2016.

“Our External Platform actually doesn’t release CubeSats – payloads are however in the CubeSat form factor,” Dickes said. “The NREP offers a great solution to run a lot of the same systems as a CubeSat – but you don’t lose the CubeSat to orbit – your NREP payload can return to Earth. NREP is robotically maneuvered in and out of [the] station, and then your payload can come home.”

The NanoRacks airlock is on track to meet its next project milestones.

“We are working through the detailed design and anticipate a critical design review at the end of October,” Howe said. “The next big milestone will be a Phase II Safety Review with NASA in January or so.”



Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.

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