The International Space Station will get a first commercially funded airlock, created by supplier NanoRacks in partnership with Boeing, with a planned launch and integration timeframe of 2019. The commercial airlock is designed to support deployment of small payloads, including so-called CubeSats (which are small, cost-effective satellites) from the ISS, a practice which has become increasingly popular among commercial space companies.
NASA has always articulated a strong desire to open up the ISS to more low-Earth commerce, with hopes of increasingly privatizing the sustained operation to open up alternate funding sources for ongoing space-based research and scientific pursuits. The airlock will help support that, both via station-based satellite launches, and by allowing commercial payloads to be delivered to the ISS via commercial space transport operators including Boeing and SpaceX.
This stage of development involves NASA accepting the proposal NanoRacks has created, using an independent partnership with Boeing to begin development of its airlock. The airlock production will have to go through a series of phases as outlined by an agreement signed by NASA and NanoRacks as a preliminary step ahead of development late last year, and then if all goes according to plan the intent is to launch the airlock on an ISS resupply mission currently slated for 2019.
Boeing will fabricate the pressurization connection hardware for the airlock, and the whole array is designed to be modular and reusable, in case the ISS is replaced with another commercial orbiting platform in the future and NanoRacks would like to attach its module to that station instead.
Low-Earth orbit could become an increasingly lucrative place to operate for private companies, and funding and owning a key piece of the puzzle for missions in that part of space like an airlock is a good way to grab some early real estate in this emerging market.