The burgeoning economy in low-Earth orbit is dependent largely on one thing: The International Space Station. Built at a public cost of $100 billion, it provides not only a platform for humans to work in microgravity, but also a raison d’etre for companies that build and operate the spacecraft needed to get there.
For both the space industry and for NASA, the expected retirement of the ISS at the end of the decade represents a moment of both fear and opportunity. NASA lost access to low-Earth orbit for nearly a decade after the retirement of the Space Shuttle, and if the ISS is mothballed, both the space agency and the space industry will lose out.
Just as it did with transportation to ISS, NASA’s plan is to outsource its orbital habitats to private companies. Not surprisingly, industry finds it a reasonable idea. Axiom Space, founded by former NASA officials, is flying a private mission to the ISS next year on a SpaceX vehicle, and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars to build a small module that it will attach to the ISS before spinning out into its own station. Last week, Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their own commercial space station, Starlab.
Now, Jeff Bezos has thrown his hat in the ring.
Blue Origin says its “Orbital Reef” will be in orbit before 2030
Blue Origin, the space company he founded, has put together a team of contractors, including Sierra Space, Boeing, and Redwire Space, to launch a space station called Orbital Reef sometime before the end of the decade that will act as a “business park” in orbit, hosting projects developed by governments and private users. The announcement, at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, lacked financial details or specific forecasts.
Still, the Orbital Reef is more ambitious than the more functional designs of Axiom or Starlab. Its initial version includes three linked habitats with room for 10 crew members, 100 kilowatts of on board power, an internal volume equal to about 90% of that on the ISS, and a “sky canopy” of huge windows facing the Earth.
At its heart, the team-up is a collection of existing programs now linked together with a common purpose and new branding. Boeing’s role is to provide crew transportation with its still unflown Starliner space capsule and manage the station, as it currently does with the ISS. Sierra Space plans to deliver cargo with Dreamchaser, the spacecraft it has been developing for fifteen years, and build a habitat module it had previously proposed to NASA as a solo project. Redwire, an in-space manufacturing firm, will offer components and become an early user. Blue Origin’s main role will be to launch the station using its forthcoming New Glenn rocket, and build the core modules of the orbital platform.
Other members of the group include Arizona State University, which will help develop the station’s scientific agenda, and Genesis, a company building a single-person space vehicle that will be used instead of space suits for astronauts who need to do work outside of the habitat.
How to build a space station
Executives from the firms declined to offer specific figures for the cost of the project, saying it is proprietary, or explain where the needed capital will come from. Asked if they would require NASA funding, Blue Origin vice president Brent Sherwood said “no,” but also said the mission had always been conceived as a public-private partnership. The space agency has long said it would like to be an anchor tenant at a private station, but its limited funds will be spread among multiple bidders, at least at first.
The funding question is critical because most rigorous analyses suggest that private space stations are unlikely to break even in the near future. But the space economy is moving quickly—just look at the number of private citizens queuing up to visit the ISS—and investors hope to find the right combination of paid research, micro-gravity manufacturing, and trips by tourists and artists to make an orbital platform financially viable.
The Orbital Reef announcement was reminiscent of the team Blue Origin put together to bid on a NASA moon lander contract. That proposal was seen as too costly by the space agency and rejected, but Blue is fighting in court to win the contract. After the initial rejection, Bezos offered to cover $2 billion of the lander’s cost for NASA. Given his stated goal of building the infrastructure for millions of people to live and work in space, he might have a similar offer in mind this time around.
An even bigger obstacle than financing may be execution. The three firms with the most hardware to produce for this effort, Blue Origin, Boeing, and Sierra Space, have faced real difficulty delivering recent aerospace projects. Blue Origin employees say the company’s culture is interfering in its ability to deliver rockets on time. Boeing’s Starliner failed its second flight test in two years and its engineers are still trying to solve a problem with sticky valves. Meanwhile, Sierra Space first licensed the technology for the Dreamchaser in 2006 and its first flight is anticipated sometime next year.
Hopes for an off-world business park
“What we’re hoping to get is support for the direction of Orbital Reef,” Mike Gold, an executive at Redwire, said at the announcement. “What we need is to demonstrate bipartisan commitment to preventing an American gap in [access to low-Earth orbit], so that our partners can be confident that America is united to take action.”
One reason that political commitment is important is that it implies public funding will emerge to ensure that commercial stations can take over from the ISS. The project’s success, however, depends on proving there is real private demand for space activity, from developing drugs to making movies, that can’t be replicated on Earth. Attempts to seed such markets on the ISS haven’t always gone smoothly, in part because a government lab isn’t the best place for entrepreneurship.
“The only market that is confidently understood today, very well characterized, is scientific research,” Sherwood explained. “The good news is that’s a stable market. The less good news is that’s a market which is unlikely to grow by multiple factors. The other market sectors we talked about are ones that people have hoped for and worked for and talked about for decades. Now we are at the point where we can test them…we will discover how deep there are, how broad they will be, how much they will grow.”
Beyond the commercial possibilities, Blue Origin is also thinking much more broadly about human life in space. Jeffrey Montes, a senior space architect at Blue Origin, tweeted about the design. “A linear public square with our precious Earth as its sky provides…Amenities to universal berths and docks on either side,” he wrote. “The energy system faces the dome of the Void, keeping views and traffic corridors free. …With a clear growth pattern, public/ private zoning, a true public space, and segregation between machine infrastructure and human habitation, #OrbitalReef is the first achievable urban concept for LEO.”
To realize it, they’ll need to not only win political support in the US, but also get to space faster (and with cheaper terms) than private competitors with designs on the same set of companies and countries looking to rent a share of an orbiting industrial platform.
“We love competition,” Sherwood said. “Game on.”