What comes after the International Space Station retires? The off-Earth outpost will not be the only one if everything proceeds as scheduled. The station celebrated the major 20-year milestone on November 2 of continuous human occupation on the moon.
The ISS still has some time to serve – it was officially approved to function until the end of 2024 but may be extended until December 2028. Whenever the collaboration project between the United States, the European State Agency (ESA) nations, Japan, Russia, and Canada ends, many other projects are set to come in their place.
One of such projects is by the Axiom Space company which aims to use the ISS as a station on the way to its station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The Houston-based company plans to start sending new commercial modules to the space station by 2024. The commercial modules will bring more space for research and for the astronauts to live on while on the ISS. Axiom plans to finish its construction and fully separate from the station to be a free-flying living and working complex in space, according to Axiom representatives.
The company also plans to offer additional services such as tourist transport to the ISS on Crew Dragon capsules by SpaceX. The first of these tourist missions is set to launch in 2021. Orion Span has plans underway to have its own LEO station named Aurora. The company intends to launch in 2021 as well and will begin hosting clients in 2022.
The Chinese government also has big plans for space. The country wants to have an LEO outpost about a quarter the size of the ISS. China wants to have station assembly programs begin in 2021, and has already sent prototype modules to space. The two prototype modules are already in orbit and have hosted astronauts before, with one receiving a robotic resupply ship. India is also planning its own LEO station and is working to launch its inaugural crewed mission to orbit in 2022. If this mission is successful, the country plans to have a space station by 2030.
Plans for the future go beyond LEO projects too. NASA is in the process of building the Gateway, a small moon-orbiting outpost as part of its Artemis program. The Artemis project plans to launch two astronauts to the moon’s south pole by 2024 and in the long-term, maintain a sustainable presence on the lunar surface by 2028.