Northrop, Nanoracks team on commercial space station project
Northrop Grumman has decided to withdraw from an agreement with NASA to build a commercial space station and will instead join forces with Nanoracks to develop “Starlab.”
Starlab is a single-launch space station being designed by Nanoracks, which is part of Voyager Space’s exploration segment. The company also has hardware aboard the International Space Station, including a commercial experimental airlock called Bishop.
Nanoracks was selected in 2021 along with Northrop Grumman’s and Blue Origin to develop privately-run space stations as part of NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program. Another company, Axiom Space, is also contracted to add commercial modules to the ISS itself as early as 2025 with the intent to detach and form an independent outpost by the end of the decade.
NASA hopes to have one or more commercial space stations ready to provide lower cost research services in low Earth orbit once the ISS is retired, currently expected in 2030, allowing the agency to focus on Artemis missions to the Moon.
“Commercial destinations are a critical capability for NASA as we transition low Earth orbit operations to private industry and open access to space. Refining strategies and evolving partnerships are part of the process as we build a robust low Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers,” Angela Hart, manager of the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, said in an Oct. 4 agency statement. “This opportunity provides us the ability to reduce risks and have more insight into our partners’ technical designs.”
Northrop Grumman’s 2021 milestone-based Space Act Agreement to develop its own space station was worth $125.6 million. To date, about $36.6 million had been disbursed as the company reached specific milestones.
NASA said the remaining amount associated with Northrop Grumman’s 2021 agreement is expected to be redistributed to the other three companies developing space stations via added milestones, assuming the agency and companies agree on the tasks and value.
Nanoracks’ Starlab is expected to consist of two parts: a service module for power and propulsion, and a pressurized module for living and laboratory space along with several docking ports for visiting vehicles. Launch is tentatively slated for no earlier than 2028.
According to Voyager Space and Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman is expected to provide critical cargo logistics services and engineering solutions to support the Starlab project.
Once in orbit, an enhanced version of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft will be tasked with delivering essential cargo to Starlab over an initial five-year period. To date, there have been 19 Cygnus missions to resupply the International Space Station, delivering some 138,000 pounds (62,600 kilograms) of cargo.
Cygnus is versatile, acting not only as a cargo vessel but also as a laboratory, satellite deployment platform and reboost vehicle. For Starlab, Northrop Grumman is expected to add fully autonomous rendezvous and docking technology to the spacecraft, which presently requires the International Space Station’s robotic arm for the final integration to the outpost.
“This collaboration is a major step forward for the Starlab program,” Dylan Taylor, chairman and CEO of Voyager Space, said in a company press release. “Northrop Grumman’s technical capability and proven success in cargo resupply services will play a pivotal role as we accelerate Starlab’s development. We’re proud to be supporting advanced docking systems that push LEO transportation operations forward and advance critical technology for deep space exploration. We are thrilled to have Northrop Grumman on our Starlab team.”
Northrop Grumman’s announcement comes shortly after Reuters reported that a partnership with Blue Origin and Sierra Space to build the “Orbital Reef” outpost may be faltering.
According to the Oct. 2 Reuters story, Blue Origin appears to be reprioritizing its efforts to other projects, namely the company’s long-delayed New Glenn rocket and its recently awarded contract to provide a Human Landing System for NASA’s Artemis program. The story noted that a company spokesperson said “Sierra Space will remain a partner on Orbital reef but declined to say in what capacity.”
Sierra Space, meanwhile, is actively engaged in developing a cargo space plane for ISS resupply services, expected to begin next year, and has plans for a crewed version for future low Earth orbit destinations. Additionally, the company is continuing work to create expandable habitats.
This potential shift from Blue Origin could result in only two prominent commercial space stations — Axiom Station and Starlab — emerging as the frontrunners in the effort to replace the aging International Space Station.
UPDATE: Blue Origin and Sierra Space said in Oct. 10 social media posts that they remain committed to working with each other and NASA on the Orbital Reef project.
Video courtesy of Voyager Space
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.