After the ISS
Before NASA says goodbye to the ISS, it plans to transition its research and astronauts to commercial space stations. Just as the agency turned to private companies like SpaceX for ISS crew and cargo transportation, it wants to become a space station customer rather than an owner.
In January 2020, NASA awarded Axiom Space a contract to attach commercial modules to the International Space Station. The modules are designed to eventually detach into a separate space station. Axiom is currently planning to launch their first segment in 2026.
A year later, NASA signed agreements with three groups of companies who plan to develop freestanding commercial space stations. After one team joined forces with another group, there are two station concepts in the works: Orbital Reef, which aims to be operational in 2027, and Starlab, which is targeting operations for 2028.
There are concerns that these commercial space stations won’t be available for use by 2028. NASA’s Office of Inspector General concluded a commercial station won’t be available until the 2030s, while NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel is worried about funding levels for commercial space station development and the USDV.
NASA officials have acknowledged that the timeline may need to change. In the meantime, the ISS remains a busy international science and research hub. With more commercial astronaut missions planned, the orbital complex will likely run at full capacity right up until the moment it is deorbited and sent into history.