Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station, will eventually help replace the International Space Station. COURTESY GRAPHIC, Orbital Reef

Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station, will eventually help replace the International Space Station. COURTESY GRAPHIC, Orbital Reef

NASA selects Kent-based Blue Origin to help develop new space station

One of three companies chosen; Blue Origin to receive estimated $130 million contract

NASA has signed agreements with Kent-based Blue Origin and two other companies to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space.

The agreements are part of the agency’s efforts to enable a robust, American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit, according to a Dec. 2 NASA news release.

The total estimated award amount for all three funded Space Act Agreements is $415.6 million. The companies that received awards are:

• Blue Origin, of Kent, for $130 million

• Nanoracks LLC, of Houston, for $160 million

• Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation, of Dulles, Virginia, for $125.6 million

NASA seeks to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the International Space Station to other platforms. These awards will stimulate U.S. private sector development of commercial, independent space stations that will be available to both government and private-sector customers, according to the news release.

“Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”

The awards are the first in a two-phase approach to ensure a seamless transition of activity from the International Space Station to commercial destinations. During this first phase, private industry, in coordination with NASA, will formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs. The first phase is expected to continue through 2025.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and Sierra Space have partnered to develop Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station to be built in low-Earth orbit, which will start operating in the second half of this decade. Orbital Reef teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. Orbital Reef’s human-centered space architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that provides essential infrastructure needed to support all types of human spaceflight activity in low-Earth orbit and can be scaled to serve new markets.

“We are pleased that NASA supports the development of Orbital Reef, a revolutionary approach to making Earth orbit more accessible to diverse customers and industries,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, in a press release. “In addition to meeting the ISS partners’ needs, the Orbital Reef mixed-use space business park will offer reduced costs and complexity, turnkey services, and inspiring space architecture to support any business. No one knows how commercial LEO markets will develop, but we intend to find out.”

The station’s shared infrastructure will support the proprietary needs of diverse U.S. and international users, tenants, and visitors, including those representing research, industry, government, and the commercial sector. Features such as reusable space transportation and advanced automation can minimize cost and complexity to enable the widest range of users. Accommodations, vehicle docking ports, and utilities can all be scaled with growth in market demand.

According to the NASA news release, Nanoracks’ commercial low-Earth orbit destination, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is called “Starlab.” Starlab is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.

Starlab will host the George Washington Carver Science Park featuring four main operational departments – a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area – to meet the needs of researchers and commercial customers for commercial space activities. The station will be built with flexible growth in mind, featuring interfaces both internal and external to the spacecraft to allow Nanoracks to expand the architecture as new demand sources are identified, and new markets emerge.

Northrop Grumman’s design for a modular, commercial destination in low-Earth orbit is built on decades of experience supporting NASA, defense, and commercial programs. The design leverages flight-proven elements, such as the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo delivery to the International Space Station, to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design.

“Blue Origin and Sierra Space are proud to be awarded the NASA Commercial Destination Free Flyer program,” said Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space. “Blue Origin and Sierra Space are committed to the realization of our vision of enabling humanity to build civilizations in space while enhancing life here on Earth. The commercialization of low Earth orbit is an important first step in this journey. We look forward to working with NASA on this important program that will advance humanity’s settlement of space.”

According to the press release, the industry team brings together all the expertise to develop, integrate, and operate Orbital Reef’s transportation and destination systems and services:

• Blue Origin leads development of the station’s infrastructure, large-diameter metal modules, last-mile space tug, and reusable heavy-lift New Glenn launch system.

• Sierra Space leads development of the LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) and small-diameter metal node modules, and Dream Chaser spaceplane for crew and cargo transportation with runway landing anywhere in the world.

• Boeing leads development of the station’s operations and maintenance and science module, and Starliner crew capsule.

• Redwire Space leads microgravity research payload development and operations, large deployable structures, and the Orbital Reef digital twin.

• Genesis Engineering Solutions develops the Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions.

• Arizona State University leads the University Advisory Group, a global consortium of universities for research advisory services and public outreach.

Orbital Reef’s vision is to provide an “address in orbit” for anyone, according to the press release. Early customers may include NASA, its traditional ISS partners, and non-traditional governments and agencies needing easier access to space. The station will grow as markets grow, including commercial industries such as research and manufacturing, media and entertainment, sports and gaming, and adventure travel and tourism.

For more information visit, orbitalreef.com.


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