Blue Origin is leading a consortium hoping to put the first commercial space station into orbit. The craft is set to combine research and tourism facilities, and provide an office address in space for businesses.
Dubbed Orbital Reef, the two initial partners are Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, which will get the platform into orbit atop the as-yet unflown New Glenn reusable rocket, and Sierra Space, developers of a mini-shuttle spacecraft and the inflatable habitats the space station will need.
Bezos just lately enjoyed a brief, incredibly expensive trip to space, so obviously the tech tycoon's next step is to create a sub-WeWork in orbit.
The obligatory futuristic promo video is below:
“For over sixty years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital space flight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade,” said [PDF] Brent Sherwood, senior veep of advanced development programs at Blue Origin.
“We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight. A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”
Boeing has also signed up to provide crew and passenger delivery with its Starliner spacecraft, which is right now grounded after more problems. The American aerospace giant will also carry out maintenance work and build a science module for the station.
“This is exciting for us because this project does not duplicate the immensely successful and enduring ISS, but rather goes a step further to fulfill a unique position in low Earth orbit where it can serve a diverse array of companies and host non-specialist crews,” said John Mulholland, Boeing VP and program manager for the International Space Station.
To keep the inhabitants mobile and entertained, Genesis Engineering Solutions is developing a single-occupancy spacecraft for orbital excursions as well as maintenance work. Florida-based Redwood Space has also signed up to deliver solar panels and other structural materials.
Now let's get real
The Orbital Reef team has set itself a very difficult timeline: getting this aloft by 2030 seems a tad optimistic. Though zillionaire Bezos has a lot of time and money on his hands right now after stepping down as CEO of Amazon, Blue Origin's budgets aren't unlimited.
The technology certainly isn't there yet. Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket promises much, and was supposed to fly in 2020, then that was pushed back to this year. But in February the maiden flight was put back again to Q4 2022, with the rocketeers blaming America's Space Force for not buying its hardware.
Once you get parts of the space station into orbit, putting it together will be difficult though not impossible. Sierra Space's inflatable LIFE habitats, planned to 27-foot-long, three-storey modules, are based on solid technology and the engineering involved is well understood, thanks to the ISS. The project would, however, require people on site to do assemble the station.
- Nothing says 'We believe in you' like NASA switching two 'nauts off Boeing's Starliner onto SpaceX's Crew Dragon
- Boeing's Starliner capsule corroded due to high humidity levels, NASA explains, and the spaceship won't fly this year
- Oops, they did it again – rogue Soyuz spurt gave ISS an attitude problem
- SpaceX prepares to launch four civilians and a glass dome into space
Boeing should have ironed out the people-ferrying Starliner's mechanical problems by next year and it will have to take another shot at an uncrewed launch to the ISS before NASA will trust astronauts to the spacecraft. Sierra Space's Dream Chaser reusable space plane is even further behind schedule.
The elephant in the room is SpaceX, which has the lift capacity of the Falcon rocket family and, soon probably, the Starship. Getting a refueling station into low-Earth orbit is Elon Musk's stated aim; indeed it's vital if SpaceX is to achieve its obligations to NASA's Moon mission and Musk's plans for Mars.
The consortium has an advantage in that this is a new build using the latest techniques and materials. Technology has come on a long way in both durability and materials since the ISS was lofted, which may help keep maintenance costs low. Also, the possibilities for orbital manufacturing from this base are huge and the payoff might be huge. ®