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NASA Hands Out $160 Million Contract for Starlab, a Private (and Inflatable) Space Station

The International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting our planet in various degrees of readiness ever since 1998. That’s 23 years, and humans plan to use it for at least a few more.
Starlab gets NASA funding 6 photos
Illustration showing the Starlab commercial space stationIllustration showing the Starlab commercial space stationIllustration showing the Starlab commercial space stationIllustration showing the Starlab commercial space stationIllustration showing the Starlab commercial space station
For the better part of its existence, the ISS has been the only structure of its kind in the space around our planet, with only the countless satellites floating out there to keep it company. But that state of facts Is rapidly changing, with China already launching into orbit the first modules of its own space station, and countless private companies planning to do the same in the near future.

Knowing space is where its future, financial and otherwise, lies, NASA made no secret of backing something dubbed “the first-ever free-flying commercial space station.” Also known as Starlab (no, not the one in the DC Universe), the station is an idea of a company called Nanoracks, and it’s supposed to be a medium where “science, research, and manufacturing for customers around the world” can be performed.

The place will be a tad smaller than the ISS, with a large inflatable habitat providing 340 cubic meters of space for four astronauts. Starlab is supposed to be continuously occupied, so it can continuously make money.

This week, the three companies working on the project (Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin) have been awarded the first contracts for the station. Valued at $160 million, they should cover the design stage for the station, as part of NASA's Commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program.

But that’s about all it covers, as Nanoracks says “NASA will have the opportunity to purchase crew and payload services on Starlab through separate services contracts.”

As it stands, Nanorack will own the station, and it’s responsible for getting the whole idea to work, Voyager Space is tasked with securing funds, while Lockheed Martin is the technical integrator for the whole thing.

At the time of writing, the plan is to have Starlab up and running in 2027, a few years before the ISS is scheduled to be retired (which would be 2030 or thereabouts).

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