What Comes After the International Space Station?

For the past two decades, the International Space Station has been humanity’s home away from home . It’s hosted hundreds of astronauts from 18 countries. It’s served as the platform for groundbreaking science experiments that have fundamentally changed our understanding of human biology , climate change , and the universe itself. It’s been a proving ground for futuristic technologies like organs on a chip and quantum communication terminals , and it's fostered the birth of a vibrant commercial space industry . The ISS is arguably the best thing we’ve ever done . But all good things must come to an end.The ISS will mark 20 years of continuous human occupation on Saturday, but it’s unlikely to last another 20 years. Funding for the space station is scheduled to dry up this decade, although exactly when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and the agency’s international partners have guaranteed support for the ISS until 2024, and some supporters in Congress have advocated extending the agency’s space station budget through 2028. What happens next is anyone's guess , but there’s a good chance it will involve scrapping the ISS and using privately operated commercial space stations instead.
“I think now is the right time to start moving away from the International Space Station, which is really just a government monopoly on space destinations, and moving them over to the private sector,” says Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA. “It’s time for NASA to start setting its sights toward deep space exploration and letting entrepreneurs move in behind us.”Over the past few years, NASA has been pushing hard to stoke commercial interest in the space station. Last year, the agency declared the ISS open for business at the Nasdaq stock exchange . The Trump administration floated the idea of a subsidy to help transition the ISS to a commercial operator . The logic is simple: NASA officials want to build moon bases and send astronauts to Mars , which is hard to do when the agency has to shell out nearly a fifth of its annual budget to keep the lights on at the ISS. Still, NASA needs a crewed research platform in low earth orbit to test the technologies that will keep humans alive on other worlds. By leaning on private industry to build and operate new space stations, NASA can focus its efforts on pushing humans deeper into space.
“NASA has been very open about the fact that in order to do exploration beyond low earth orbit, you have to have a platform there to test systems and get experience,” says Michael Suffredini, the cofounder and CEO of Axiom Space, a company that is poised to build the world’s first commercial space station. “The US government saw early on that to do exploration it couldn't afford the next space station. And so that's why we’re building one to replace the International Space Station after it retires.”
Earlier this year, NASA awarded Axiom the right to attach one of its own crew modules to a docking port on the ISS—and a $140 million contract to make it happen. The company’s plan is to launch its first module to the space station by 2024 and expand from there. In addition to the crew habitation module, Suffredini says Axiom is planning for at least two others: One will be a laboratory and manufacturing facility, and the other will be a panoramic observatory similar to the ISS cupola . The company’s plan is to leave the three modules attached to the ISS until it’s ready to be retired, which Suffredini expects to be around 2028. Once the world decides to pull the plug on the ISS, Axiom’s private habitat will detach itself and become the world’s first commercial free-flying space station.