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What space stations of the future could look like

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The International Space Station needs a replacement. NASA plans to retire the ISS at the end of 2030, after more than three decades of service. If you spent that much time with a car, you'd want to replace it. So NASA is partnering with a private company to build a new one, which got our colleague Kaity Kline wondering, what could space stations of the future look like?

KAITY KLINE, BYLINE: Science fiction has a few ideas. On "Star Trek's" USS Enterprise, there are replicators that create food on demand and a room that generates holograms, the holodeck.

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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STAR TREK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Sounds, smells.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You make it sound so real.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That's how it felt.

KLINE: We're very far away from that kind of space station. Phil McAlister is director of the commercial spaceflight division for NASA.

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PHIL MCALISTER: I kind of see the ISS as an automobile, you know? When we bought that automobile in 1999, it was state of the art.

KLINE: McAlister says the ISS could keep going for many years and remain safe, but...

MCALISTER: It's getting harder to find spare parts. The maintenance for that is becoming a larger issue.

KLINE: The new space station wouldn't be completely different from the current one. Robyn Gatens is the director for the International Space Station. She says NASA has been updating its technology along the way.

ROBYN GATENS: We've upgraded the batteries. We've upgraded and added new solar arrays that roll out. We've been upgrading our life support systems.

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KLINE: But one thing that can't change is the structure of the current space station. It's about the size of a football field, and maintaining something that large costs a lot of money.

GATENS: I think we could see these new space stations being designed a little bit more efficiently and right-sized.

KLINE: That's on the wish list of the people who work on the station. Peggy Whitson is the first woman to command the ISS, and has spent more time in space than any other woman.

PEGGY WHITSON: If you see pictures of the station, you'll think, oh, how can they work? There's cables and things all over the place.

KLINE: Whitson wants all the wires to be hidden behind panels. It's important for the structure of the ship to be extremely adaptable to new technology. And she might have some say in that. Whitson is the director of human spaceflight at Axiom Space, one of the companies funded by NASA to develop their own space station.

WHITSON: We don't know what's going to be available five years from now, but we know we're going to want to take advantage of whatever we can get our hands on.

KLINE: On the space station Axiom Space is designing, they plan to have windows in the crew quarters, including a huge cupola.

WHITSON: Basically, our windows to the world.

KLINE: On the current International Space Station, there's a cupola you can stick your head and shoulders out of to see 360-degree views of space. But in the planned station...

WHITSON: The cupola is so large that you'll be able to float your whole entire body in there and have it be an experience of basically almost flying in space. It'll be very dramatic.

KLINE: Whitson says NASA's decision to partner with private companies will make the process of designing the new space station more flexible, innovative and faster developing new technology. NASA is asking private companies to submit designs, and they'll choose one to replace the ISS by 2030. Paulo Lozano is the director of the Space Propulsion Laboratory at MIT. He can't think of any negatives to commercializing space, but it's yet to be seen if there will be enough interest.

PAULO LOZANO: But for sure, once you have entrepreneurship and you have a commercial interest, that accelerates technology development for sure.

KLINE: And the price tag for a shiny new space station? Here's Phil McAlister with NASA again.

MCALISTER: What does it cost to build a car? Well, it depends. If you want a Kia or if you want a Mercedes or if you want a Lamborghini, all those have very, very different cost structures.

KLINE: NASA says that by handing responsibility of an ISS replacement over to private companies, it will allow the agency to develop technology more quickly and focus on their next goal, putting a space station in deep space, where none have been before.

Kaity Kline, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GOLDSMITH'S "END TITLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kaity Kline
Kaity Kline is an Assistant Producer at Morning Edition and Up First. She started at NPR in 2019 as a Here & Now intern and has worked at nearly every NPR news magazine show since.