The race to build a successor to the aging International Space Station is on and features some of the biggest names in aerospace, from Northrop Grumman to Blue Origin. Now, a relatively unknown new entrant hopes to beat all of them by lofting a station to orbit that could host its first crew by late 2025.
Backed by a billionaire entrepreneur, Vast, a California-based start-up, is partnering with Elon Musk’s SpaceX to lift a station that could host up to four people for 30 days. And it’s planning on getting it to space quickly, as soon as August 2025.
While that timeline is ambitious, and likely to slip, it is well ahead of some of the other commercial stations being developed as successors to the ISS. If Vast’s plans come to fruition, it would mark the first time a commercial rocket company had launched humans to a commercial space station, another milestone in the privatization of space.
Later this month, SpaceX is set to launch its second crew of private citizens to the ISS in a mission chartered by Axiom Space. The company is also working with Jared Isaacman, the entrepreneur and explorer, who in 2021 spent three days in orbit with three other civilians. He’s since booked three more flights, including one for later this year that will feature the first private citizen spacewalk.
The clock is ticking on the ISS.
NASA and many of its partner countries have committed to operating the ISS through 2030. Last month, Russia confirmed it would remain a partner at least through 2028, easing concerns that it might pull out of the partnership. But while NASA now has those commitments in place, the space agency is also moving ahead with funding the commercial stations that might replace it.
In late 2021, it awarded contracts, worth a total of $415.6 million to three companies — Northrop Grumman, and teams led by NanoRacks and Blue Origin — to develop commercial stations that could eventually replace the ISS. Another company, Axiom Space, is also working with NASA on a station of its own. (Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
There is a concern among some at NASA and throughout the space industry that the commercial stations won’t be ready in time, leaving the United States without a destination in Earth orbit for its astronauts. After the space shuttle was retired in 2011, NASA was left without a way to get its astronauts to space for nearly a decade, while it waited for its commercial providers to develop their spacecraft. In the meantime, it was forced to rely on Russia to fly its astronauts to the ISS.
But there is no backup space station for NASA to use if the commercial habitats aren’t ready in time. China has recently assembled one of its own, but NASA is effectively barred from partnering with China in space.
The future of NASA in the neighborhood just beyond Earth’s atmosphere has gotten the attention of the White House, which in a statement in March released a five-part strategy dedicated to “maintaining U.S. preeminence in low Earth orbit.”
But first it needs to ensure there isn’t a gap between the retirement of the ISS and the commercial stations.
Vast did not participate in the first round of NASA funding, but says that with a small and simple design, and a partnership with SpaceX, it should be able to get a station up relatively quickly. The company recently signed a contract with SpaceX to launch its first station, a small module it calls Haven-1.
The whole thing would be able to fit inside the nose cone of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, meaning it could be put into orbit with a single launch. Vast also has a contract with SpaceX to fly a crew of up to four people to the station in SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft, which is also used to fly NASA astronauts to the ISS. Vast has not said what it would charge for the stays. The company said its customers could come from international space agencies as well as wealthy individuals.
“A commercial rocket launching a commercial spacecraft with commercial astronauts to a commercial space station is the future of low Earth orbit, and with Vast we’re taking another step toward making that future a reality,” Tom Ochinero, SpaceX’s senior vice president of commercial business, said in a statement.
Vast is led and backed by Jed McCaleb, who is worth $2.4 billion, according to Forbes, from his work in cryptocurrency. While he said SpaceX is solving the problem of getting large amounts of mass to orbit cheaply with its fleet of rockets, “the next thing is providing low-cost, successful human habitation. That’s what Vast is working on.”
While Haven-1 would be a relatively small station, just about 33 feet long and about 12.5 feet in diameter, the company plans to send up additional modules. One of its main goals, however, is an ever bigger station that would rotate, providing artificial gravity.
That’s in part what attracted Hans Koenigsmann, who was SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability before retiring in 2021, to serve as a consultant to Vast, which he said “reminds me a little bit of SpaceX.” One of the benefits of a station with gravity would be to mimic Mars’s gravity, allowing researchers to see how it affects the human body before sending people to the Red Planet.
“It would give us a chance to test these things before you go to Mars,” he said. “I really like that idea.”