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B330-based space station
An artist’s conception shows three Bigelow Aerospace B330 modules linked together to create a space station being serviced by SpaceX Dragon spacecraft. Such a configuration would provide as much pressurized volume as the International Space Station. (Bigelow Aerospace Illustration)

Thirteen companies, including Boeing and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, will be doing studies for NASA on the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.

All of the studies are due in December, and are supposed to cost no more than $1 million each. NASA still has to negotiate the contract amounts with the study groups, but it expects the total cost of the effort to come in at around $11 million.

The exercise is in line with NASA’s initiative to commercialize low-Earth-orbit operations by 2025. The options include handing over of the International Space Station to commercial management, or creating brand-new orbital outposts.

The gist of the effort is also in line with Bezos’ long-term vision of having millions of people living and working in space. For now, Blue Origin is focusing on suborbital and orbital launch capabilities, plus a lunar lander program known as Blue Moon. But the company’s involvement in these new studies suggests that it’ll be thinking about space outposts as well.

Boeing, too, has been thinking ahead. In May, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg laid out a vision for having up to a dozen outposts orbiting Earth within a decade or two as part of a new “space ecosystem.”

The 13 studies are expected to lay out business plans for habitable platforms in low Earth orbit, and make recommendations about the International Space Station’s role in the transition to non-governmental orbital enterprises.

“When the International Space Station was established, we could not have anticipated all of the benefits it would provide,” Sam Scimemi, director of the International Space Station division at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release.

“We’re excited to receive this input from the commercial market and aerospace experts to help shape a future thriving space economy in which companies contract with each other to conduct research and activities in low Earth orbit,” Scimemi said.

NASA says shifting operations in low Earth orbit to commercial ventures will help the space agency focus more fully on exploration beyond Earth orbit. But there are limits to how far commercialization can go.

In an audit issued last month, NASA’s inspector general questioned whether there was a “sufficient business case” for turning the space station into a self-sustaining, profit-making commercial venture by 2025.

In addition to Blue Origin and Boeing, the study groups include three companies with plans on the books for orbital outposts — Axiom Space, Bigelow Aerospace and NanoRacks — and Space Adventures, which has sent seven paying spaceflight participants to the International Space Station since 2001.

The list also has a few companies that are better known for government and business consulting than for spaceflight per se — such as Deloitte Consulting, McKinsey & Co. and KBRwyle.

One company that’s not on the list is SpaceX, which is already transporting cargo to and from the space station, and will soon transport astronauts as well (along with Boeing).

It’s not yet fully clear why SpaceX wasn’t included. Neither NASA nor SpaceX provided an explanation in response to GeekWire’s inquiries. However, it could be that NASA is already getting enough input from SpaceX through its existing relationship. And besides, SpaceX founder Elon Musk’s focus has always been more on Mars settlement than on putting new outposts in low Earth orbit.

Here’s the full list of 13 companies:

  • Axiom Space, Houston
  • Bigelow Aerospace, Las Vegas
  • Blue Origin, Kent, Wash.
  • The Boeing Co., Houston
  • Deloitte Consulting, Manhattan Beach, Calif.
  • KBRwyle, Houston
  • Lockheed Martin, Littleton, Colo.
  • McKinsey & Co., Washington, D.C.
  • NanoRacks, Webster, Texas
  • Northrop Grumman, Dulles, Va.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp., Louisville, Colo.
  • Space Adventures, Vienna, Va.
  • Space Systems/Loral, Palo Alto, Calif.
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