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The competion heats up: The private company NanoRacks has proposed building a large airlock for ISS which could be used to launch private cubesates while also allowing NASA to eliminate spacewalks by bringing faulty equipment inside for repairs.
For commercial opportunities, NanoRacks has a small satellite launcher, and it is also designing a “haybale” system to launch as many as 192 cubesats at a time. After the airlock is configured, it would be depressurized and sealed. Then a station robotic arm could grab it, move it away from the vehicle, and deploy its payloads.
NASA is also interested in the opportunity to potentially fix large, external components of the space station. Before the space shuttle’s retirement, NASA used the sizable delivery vehicle to stash dozens of replacement pumps, storage tanks, controller boxes, batteries, and other equipment on the station, known as ORUs. When one of these components broke, astronauts would conduct a spacewalk to install a replacement unit.
However sometimes the problem with a broken unit is relatively minor, such as a problematic circuit card. With a larger airlock, damaged components could be brought inside the station, assessed, and possibly fixed, saving NASA the expense of building and delivering a new unit to the station—or losing a valuable spare. Finally, the space agency could use the airlock to dispose of trash that accumulates on station and can be difficult to get rid of.
It is exactly this kind of technology, spurred by the lure of profits, that interplanetary spaceships need if they are going to be maintainable far from home.