It’s never too soon to prepare for the future and NASA is busy making sure that it’s on track for a future without the International Space Station.

What You Need To Know

  • NASA is preparing for the retirement of the ISS by 2030

  •  Commercial space stations should be ready by 2028 to begin the transition

  • Using a commercial station will save about $1.5 billion annually for NASA

Over the course of a two-day meeting, the Human Exploration and Operations (HEO) Committee discussed several aspects of NASA’s involvement with human spaceflight and how it will interact with its partners in the private sector moving forward, especially when it comes to working on commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO).

“It’s been a great program, but all programs come to an end and we are seeing the end of life for ISS being a little bit closer than its beginning of life. So, we have to plan for that,” said Phil McAlister, the director of the commercial spaceflight division for HEO.

Close to the end of 2021, NASA announced its intention to extend the life of the ISS through 2030, which they expect would give enough room to transition to private stations in LEO. 

McAlister said that by retiring the ISS, it should save NASA about $1.5 billion annually. 

“And in this case, we don’t need any increased appropriations. We’re just using our money smarter,” McAlister said. “And that is going to be a key enabler for our Artemis missions going forward as well as freeing up the personnel resources.”

In response to a question from one of the committee members, McAlister said that NASA’s obligation of running the ISS is about $3.5 billion each year. He noted that half a billion of that are activities that NASA will want to continue to do in LEO with or without the Space Station and it will cost about $1 billion to purchase the services they need from a commercial LEO destination. 

Three so-called “free-flyer” commercial destinations are currently under development with contracts from NASA:

  • Starlab - $160 million (Nanoracks, Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space)
  • Unnamed destination - $125.6 million (Northrop Grumman and Dynetics)
  • Orbital Reef - $130 million (Blue Origin and Sierra Space)


Axiom Space is also developing a commercial destination on the ISS and will launch its first module to the orbiting outpost in late 2024. 

The company is also planning the first private astronaut mission to the ISS. That was originally set for February 28, but on Tuesday, NASA announced that the mission was pushed back to no earlier than March 31, 2022.

Commercial Crew Program

McAlister said that the Commercial Crew Program is still proving to be quite successful. At the point at which the agency was still purchasing seats on a Soyuz rocket, the cost was about $80 million per seat. He said he that the average cost for a seat between SpaceX and Boeing was about $58 million.

After a valve issued forced NASA and Boeing to stand down from a July 2021 launch of the CST-100 Starliner spacecraft, they decided to move up the capsule originally intended for use on the Crewed Flight Test, which will now be used on the Orbital Flight Test-2. That launch is set for some time in May, pending availability with United Launch Alliance and room on the ISS.

“It has some similar sets of valves, but we have some testing underway to make sure the service module will perform well,” said Steve Stich, the program manager for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. “If I look back to the first Orbital Flight Test [in 2019], it really proved that the vehicle is a viable spacecraft for crew transportation.”

Stich said that the launch date for CFT would be determined after a successful OFT-2, but pointed to previous comments from John Vollmer, Boeing’s Commercial Crew Program manager, saying that there would probably be a six-month turnaround between flights.

Because of delays getting Boeing in rotation, SpaceX’s six-flight contract with NASA is almost at its end. Three more missions were tacked on to ensure that the launch cadence would continue and astronauts Nicole Mann and Josh Cassada were reassigned from Starliner to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for the Crew-5 mission.

Crew-5 is expected to launch in fall 2022. That is also expected to mark the first time that a Russian cosmonaut will fly on a commercial spacecraft. 

“Anna has begun training as well at Hawthorne, so, we’re excited to have Roscosmos fly on the vehicle as well,” Stich said. 

Anna Kikina is currently the only female cosmonaut serving at the moment. Back in December, Rosocosmos said that she was likely in contention for the flight.

“I recently learned about my flight on an American spacecraft from my superiors and was pleasantly surprised by the offer. I feel very good about the opportunity to make my first spaceflight under the exchange program,” Kikina said in a statement.