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Commercial space station Orbital Reef's design phase passes NASA review
Ready or not, ISS is coming down in 2031, and Amazon, Boeing and more are ready for business
NASA has given the go-ahead for the first commercially owned and operated space station, Orbital Reef, to advance to design phase.
The low Earth orbit coworking and coliving space is being created in partnership with Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origin and Sierra Space, developers of the mini-shuttle Dream Chaser as well as inflatable habitats for the space environment.
The teams say the station is designed for future customers seeking space transport, logistics, habit, storage, and operations – available live and in person, and with access to orbital excursion tools. Sierra and Blue Origin refer to the endeavor as "the next chapter of human space exploration and development.”
"Designed to open multiple new markets in space, Orbital Reef will provide anyone with the opportunity to establish their own address in orbit," said an announcement of the milestone.
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The business park in the sky is optimistic in all ways, including proposed timing. The space companies say it is set for operation in 2027. As of now it has just passed its System Definition Review (SDR). The SDR took place over the course of a month, from mid-June to mid-July. It included an evaluation of the proposed system architecture and all functional elements, checking that they meet all functional and performance requirements, complete with feedback to the Orbital Reef team.
Post-SDR, it will face a guantlet of design and readiness reviews [PDF] before experiencing a launch. No reason to rush though – its currently assigned ride into space, the New Glenn rocket, won't have its first flight until at least 2023. It has already experienced several schedule pushbacks.
Beyond Sierra Space and Blue Origin, the Orbital Reef team includes Amazon Supply Chain, Amazon Web Services, Arizona State University, Boeing, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Redwire Space. Together they are said to be "maturing the design" with help from NASA as the US space agency attempts to shift research and exploration activities in low Earth orbit over to the private sector.
"It's the commercial world in which advanced capabilities get normalized and become a part of everyday life," said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin in a promotional video.
As for the International Space Station (ISS), its days are numbered, with a planned de-orbit scheduled for January 2031. A host of successors, not just Orbital Reef, seek to fill the metaphorical and literal void.
NASA has signed agreements with three US companies to develop designs of space stations and other space-based commercial destinations. Blue Origin received $130 million for Orbital Reef, while Nanoracks LLC took $160 million and Northrop Grumman $125.6 million. ®