Spent rockets are dangerous space trash, but they could be the future of living and working in orbit.
IN EARLY OCTOBER, a dead Soviet satellite and the abandoned upper stage of a Chinese rocket narrowly avoided a collision in low Earth orbit. If the objects had crashed, the impact would have blown them to bits and created thousands of new pieces of dangerous space debris. Only a few days prior, the European Space Agency had published its annual space environment report, which highlighted abandoned rocket bodies as one of the biggest threats to spacecraft. The best way to mitigate this risk is for launch providers to deorbit their rockets after they’ve delivered their payload. But if you ask Jeffrey Manber, that’s a waste of a perfectly good giant metal tube.
Manber is the CEO of Nanoracks, a space logistics company best known for hosting private payloads on the International Space Station, and for the past few years he has been working on a plan to turn the upper stages of spent rockets into miniature space stations. It’s not a new idea, but Manber feels its time has come. “NASA has looked at the idea of refurbishing fuel tanks several times,” he says. “But it was always abandoned, usually because the technology wasn’t there.” All of NASA’s previous plans depended on astronauts doing a lot of the manufacturing and assembly work, which made the projects expensive, slow, and hazardous. Manber’s vision is to create an extraterrestrial chop shop where astronauts are replaced by autonomous robots that cut, bend, and weld the bodies of spent rockets until they’re fit to be used as laboratories, fuel depots, or warehouses.
The Nanoracks program, known as Outpost, will modify rockets after they’re done with their mission to give them a second life. The first Outposts will be uncrewed stations made from the upper stages of new rockets, but Manber says it’s possible that future stations could host people or be built from rocket stages already in orbit. In the beginning, Nanoracks won’t use the interior of the rocket and will mount experiment payloads, power supply modules, and small propulsion units to the outside of the fuselage. Once company engineers have that figured out, they can focus on developing the inside of the rocket as a pressurized laboratory.