Innovation

Orbital Reef: NASA just selected Blue Origin team to build ISS successor

Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and others plan to build a new private space station in low-Earth orbit.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s plan for a commercial space station just got a big thumbs-up from NASA. On Thursday, the Jeff Bezos-founded company announced that it had won a funded Space Act Agreement for its commercially owned and operated space station proposal.

The move lays the groundwork for a successor to the International Space Station, which finished construction in 2011. NASA has cleared the ISS to fly until 2028. By comparison, the Soviet Union’s Mir space station operated from 1986 to 2001.

Governments and private companies are now exploring options for a successor to the ISS. With NASA’s latest move, the agency’s self-stated aim is to ensure American astronauts still have somewhere to go after the ISS.

“We are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

NASA awarded three contracts, amounting to a total of $415.6 million. This covers:

  1. Blue Origin’s proposal, at the cost of $130 million. The company describes it as a “mixed-use space business park.” It will launch in the latter part of the 2020s.
  2. Nanoracks’ proposal, at $160 million. This commercial space station will support four astronauts, set for launch on a single flight in 2027.
  3. Northrop Grumman’s proposal, at $125.6 million. This design covers a “modular, commercial destination in low-Earth orbit.”

The awards cover the first phase of a two-phase approach to building a successor. This phase, expected to last until 2025, will see these private firms working with NASA to develop their ideas.

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What is Orbital Reef?

First announced in October 2021, Orbital Reef is a proposal from a team led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space. The team also includes Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University.

The space station will offer spaces for use, lease, or ownership that are open to people worldwide. It offers large Earth-facing windows with quarters for both living and working.

The consortium behind Orbital Reef designed it to support commercial activity. A mixed-use business park enables companies to conduct research, shoot films, or even set up a space hotel.

“We sell only the utilities and services you need to sustain your business: power, cooling, high-bandwidth communications, information and physical security, robotic servicing, technician attention, stowage, and logistics.”

The team’s baseline configuration would support 10 people in 830 cubic meters (29,311 cubic feet) of space. It would orbit at around 500 kilometers (310 miles).

While it seems like an award that could take the sting out of Blue Origin’s Artemis snub, the figures are wildly different.

In April 2020, NASA announced that it would ask three American teams to develop human landers for its planned Artemis crewed mission to the Moon. In April 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX a $2.9 billion contract to use its Starship rocket as a lunar lander — the Blue Origin proposal would have cost $5.9 billion.

Blue Origin could still find indirect competition from SpaceX in this area — Elon Musk’s company will use its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule to help Axiom Space build its own private space station. The company could establish an independent space station as early as 2027.

As NASA assists both companies with contracts and funding, the agency could help shape the emerging new space race.

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