Blue Origin, the Kent-based space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on Monday touted a vision of building a futuristic commercial space station to replace the aging International Space Station that is funded by governments.
It’s one of several proposals vying for NASA funding for such a private space station. Blue Origin will partner on the project with Boeing, which operates the current International Space Station; Sierra Space, which is building in Colorado a winged spaceplane launch vehicle called Dream Chaser; and a couple of smaller space companies.
The low-Earth-orbit space station, dubbed Orbital Reef, will be assembled in modular sections that lock together. These include balloon-like habitats that inflate in space, inside of which humans will live and work. The architecture is in early development.
The spacecraft envisaged as shuttling crew and cargo back and forth from Earth are also not finished products yet: Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Sierra’s Dream Chaser have not yet flown, while Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule has yet to carry astronauts.
Announcing the plan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during the International Astronautical Congress, Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, said those space vehicles will be flying “within the next couple of years.”
Sherwood presented the Orbital Reef concept as “an off-world mixed-use business park.”
Think of it as a place where businesses could lease a room to manufacture space equipment, where scientific researchers could rent lab space to make use of microgravity and where space tourists could spend more time than the few minutes now available on a Blue Origin rocket ride.
It’s a combination of a WeWork facility, a science lab and a hotel, in connected modules powered by solar arrays, circling in low Earth orbit more than 200 miles above the planet.
In a news conference broadcast from Dubai, Mike Gold, executive vice president of Jacksonville, Florida-based space infrastructure company Redwire that is part of the Orbital Reef team, held out the more grandiose prospect that with microgravity research on this orbiting laboratory, “We can develop new technologies that will enhance global communications, new medicines that will heal the sick, new crops that will feed the hungry.”
Sherwood described Orbital Reef as the first step toward the vision conjured by his boss Bezos, that millions of people will one day live and work in space.
“To get to millions of people, we first need thousands, and before that hundreds,” he said. “It starts with dozens.”
Artist renderings of the station showed spacious, polished interiors, with people floating through hatches between the modules and gazing out of large windows at Earth below.
Sherwood said the baseline space station should be operational in the second half of this decade, ahead of the planned decommissioning of the ISS around 2028 or 2030.
It will have an interior volume of about 1,100 cubic yards — roughly the size of about 14 small bedrooms.
Pieces that must come together
Blue Origin will provide its large New Glenn rocket for the project to launch crew and materials into space, as well as the core modules that will be the initial building blocks for the space station.
The first launch of New Glenn, a bigger rocket to follow Blue Origin’s current New Shepard suborbital rocket, has been delayed until the last quarter of next year.
Boeing will provide its Starliner crew capsule as well as a module containing the living quarters for the residents of the space station.
John Mulholland, Boeing vice president for the ISS, said its module will be “a large expandable three-story space to live and work, 27 feet in diameter.”
After an initial uncrewed orbital flight of the Starliner failed to dock with the ISS in 2019, a second attempt was scrubbed in August after some valves got stuck. Boeing will try again next year.
Sierra Space will provide its Dream Chaser spaceplane, which is designed to take off and land on a runway like an airplane.
Janet Kavandi, Sierra’s president and a former Space Shuttle astronaut, said in Dubai that the Dream Chaser “is being built right now in Colorado” and is due to launch for the first time at the end of next year or in early 2023.
The Dream Chaser provides redundancy. If New Glenn isn’t available for whatever reason, it provides an alternative way to carry crew and cargo to the station.
Genesis Engineering Solutions, based in Lanham, Maryland, is developing what it’s calling “a Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions” floating outside the space station.
This is designed to replace the familiar tethered spacesuits that astronauts wear then they go on a “spacewalk” to fix something on the outside of the ISS.
In concept images, the Genesis vehicle looks like a floating vending machine with a human peering out from a large window and manipulating various robotic arms.
Finally, Redwire will provide the space station’s unfurling solar panels and manufacturing equipment as well as digital engineering.
Chasing NASA funding
Blue Origin is not the first to propose a private space station.
NASA in March announced the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development program, inviting companies to compete in developing habitats that could house astronauts and scientists and create demand from businesses and national governments seeking a cost-effective way to get into orbit.
NASA will select up to four such projects and provide $300 million to $400 million to fund early development in public-private partnerships.
Last week, Nanoracks, which helps companies fly science experiments and other payloads to the ISS, announced it was partnering with its majority owner Voyager Space as well as Lockheed Martin to build a space station called Starlab.
NASA has already awarded $140 million to Houston-based Axiom Space to build modules that will connect to the current ISS. When that station is retired, Axiom plans to detach its modules so that they will then become a separate orbiting space station.
It’s unclear how much the Orbital Reef companies have invested so far — or how much federal money will be available if they are selected as one of the funded projects.