Blue Origin, the Kent-based space company of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced on Monday the vision of building a futuristic commercial space station to replace the aging, government-funded International Space Station.
It is one of several proposals competing for NASA funding for such a private space station. Blue Origin will partner with Boeing, which operates the current International Space Station, on the project; Sierra Space, which is building a winged launch vehicle called the Dream Chaser in Colorado; and a couple of smaller space companies.
The low-earth orbit space station, called the Orbital Reef, is assembled in modular sections that interlock. These include balloon-like habitats that inflate in space where people live and work. The architecture is in an early stage of development.
The spaceships that are supposed to move crew and cargo back and forth from Earth are not ready either: Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and Sierra’s Dream Chaser have not yet flown, while Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule has not flown doesn’t have to carry any astronauts yet.
Announcing the plan in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, during the International Astronautical Congress, Trent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs, said these spacecraft will be flying “within the next few years.”
Sherwood presented the Orbital Reef concept as “an off-world mixed-use business park”.
Think of it as a place where companies could rent space to manufacture space equipment, where scientific researchers could rent laboratories to take advantage of weightlessness, and where space tourists could spend more time than the few minutes that are now on a Blue Origin rocket are available.
It is a combination of a WeWork facility, a science laboratory and a hotel in connected modules powered by solar panels that orbit more than 300 kilometers above the planet in low earth orbit.
In a press conference broadcast from Dubai, Mike Gold, executive vice president of Jacksonville, Florida-based space infrastructure company Redwire, which is part of the Orbital Reef team, presented the grander prospect that with microgravity research in this wraparound lab, âWe can develop new technologies that improve global communication, new medicines that cure the sick, new plants that feed the hungry. “
Sherwood described Orbital Reef as the first step towards the vision conjured up by his boss Bezos that one day millions of people will live and work in space.
“To reach millions of people, we need thousands first, and then hundreds,” he said. “It starts with dozens.”
Artistic representations of the station showed spacious, polished interiors in which people floated through hatches between the modules and stared out of large windows at the earth below.
Sherwood said the base station should be operational in the second half of this decade before the ISS is decommissioned around 2028 or 2030.
It will have an internal volume of around 1,100 cubic meters – about the size of around 14 small bedrooms.
Parts that have to fit together
Blue Origin will provide its large New Glenn rocket for the project to take crew and materials into space, as well as the core modules that will be the first building blocks for the space station.
The first launch of New Glenn, a larger rocket following that of Blue Origin currently New Shepard suborbital missile has been postponed to the last quarter of next year.
Boeing will provide its Starliner crew capsule and a module with the living quarters for the residents of the space station.
John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President for the ISS, said his module will be “a large, expandable three-story space for living and working, 27 feet in diameter.”
After a first unmanned orbital flight of the Starliner in 2019 could not dock with the ISS, 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 like an airplane on a runway.
Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra and 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 late next year or early 2023.
The Dream Chaser offers redundancy. If for any reason New Glenn is unavailable, it will provide an alternative means of transferring crew and cargo to the station.
Genesis Engineering Solutions, based in Lanham, Maryland, is developing what is known as a âone-person spaceship for routine operations and tourist excursionsâ that hovers outside the space station.
This is to replace the familiar tethered spacesuits that astronauts wear when they go on a “space walk” to repair something on the outside of the ISS.
In concept art, the Genesis vehicle looks like a floating vending machine with a human looking out a large window and manipulating various robotic arms.
Eventually, Redwire will provide the space station’s unfolding solar panels and manufacturing facilities, as well as the digital technology.
On the hunt for NASA funding
Blue Origin is not the first to propose a private space station.
NASA announced the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program in March, calling on companies to compete in developing habitats that could house astronauts and scientists, and creating demand from businesses and national governments looking for a cost-effective way to get in search the orbit.
NASA will select up to four such projects and allocate $ 300 million to $ 400 million to fund early development in public-private partnerships.
Last week, Nanoracks, the company helping to fly science experiments and other payloads to the ISS, announced that it was working with majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin to build a space station called Starlab.
NASA has already provided Houston-based Axiom Space with $ 140 million to build modules that will be connected to the current ISS. If this station is decommissioned, Axiom plans to separate its modules so that they will then become a separate space station in orbit.
It’s unclear how much Orbital Reef companies have invested to date – or how much federal funding will be available if they are selected as one of the funded projects.