Two Private Companies Are Building Their Own Airlock On A Space Station

(Shutterstock/NASA images)

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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Two private companies are building an airlock on the International Space Station (ISS),

NanoRacks and Boeing are jointly developing the new airlock. NASA wants to launch the new airlock on a commercial resupply mission in 2019, and plans to put it on a port of the ISS’s Tranquility module. Airlocks allow astronauts to leave the space station without depressurizing it, and can also allow spacecraft to dock.

“We want to utilize the space station to expose the commercial sector to new and novel uses of space, ultimately creating a new economy in low-Earth orbit for scientific research, technology development and human and cargo transportation,” Sam Scimemi, the director of NASA’s ISS division, said in a press statement. “We hope this new airlock will allow a diverse community to experiment and develop opportunities in space for the commercial sector.”

U.S. plans to return to Earth’s orbit are entirely dependent on private companies, some of which are scheduled to launch by the end of this year. Astronauts began installing adapters that allowed commercial spacecraft to dock with the ISS last August to give NASA less expensive options to resupply the station.

NASA wants private companies like Boeing, Blue Origin and SpaceX to be the space agency’s “taxi service” to carry crews to the International Space Station (ISS). Once this service is established, the agency will refocus on long range deep space exploration.

The U.S. space agency’s Commercial Crew Program is intended to pay these companies to ferry astronauts up to the ISS, ultimately ending the U.S.’s  sole reliance on Russia for transporting American astronauts to and from the station.

NASA will remain dependent on  Russian rockets to ship astronauts to the ISS until the agency’s long list of stringent safety and reliability requirements for humans on private missions is met.

Boeing and SpaceX are both competing to be the first private company to send humans to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceX has a human test flight planned for October 2017, while Boeing has a flight scheduled for May 2018. The last U.S. Space Shuttle to the ISS launched in 2011, but NASA still can’t put men into space without Russian cooperation due to President Barack Obama’s cuts to the agency’s exploration and spaceflight capability.

SpaceX has already successfully resupplied the ISS seven times, but one SpaceX resupply mission in June of 2015 resulted in an explosion and a total loss of the spacecraft. The private company Orbital Sciences is also under contract with the space agency to resupply the ISS, but has also had failures. SpaceX and Russian company NPO Energomash are locked in a struggle to supply rocket engines to the U.S. military.

Currently, the U.S. pays Russia more than $70 million per astronaut sent to the ISS. Russia has repeatedly threatened to block America access to the $150 billion ISS in response to U.S. sanctions even though the U.S. paid for 84 percent of the cost of building the station.

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