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Blue Origin announces ‘Orbital Reef’ commercial space station

A rendering of an operational Orbital Reef commercial space station. Credit: Blue Origin

A rendering of an operational Orbital Reef commercial space station. Credit: Blue Origin

In partnership with Sierra Space, Blue Origin announced plans for a commercial space station to be built in low Earth orbit by the end of this decade.

Called “Orbital Reef,” Blue Origin and Sierra Space expect the station to function as an orbital “mixed use business park” designed to open multiple new markets in space. It is expected to offer customers “competitive end-to-end services,” including transportation, logistics, habitation and operations.

“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,” Brent Sherwood, Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, said in a company press release on Oct. 25, 2021. “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.”

The complex, which is expected to begin construction in the second half of this decade, is to be an open system architecture that allows any customer or country to add modules, vehicle ports, or other amenities as the market grows in low Earth orbit.

According to Blue Origin, the station is expected to offer standard interfaces “at all levels,” which includes lockers, racks and modules.

A rendering of the core module for the Orbital Reef space station. Credit: Blue Origin

A rendering of the core module for the Orbital Reef space station. Credit: Blue Origin

Orbital Reef is also being supported by Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University.

According to Blue Origin, Arizona State University is expected to provide research advisory services and public outreach, Redwire Space is expected to help with the development of microgravity research payload operations and deployable structures and Genesis Engineering Solutions is looking to develop a “Single Person Spacecraft” for external operations or tourist excursions.

“The Single Person Spacecraft will transform space walking,” said Brand Griffin, Program Manager for Genesis Engineering Solutions. “Space workers and tourists alike will have safe, comfortable, and quick access outside Orbital Reef. Shirtsleeve environment, great visibility, automated guidance, and advanced precision manipulators will make external operations cost-effective and routine.”

Boeing and Sierra Space, meanwhile, are expected to provide crew and cargo transportation with their Starliner and Dream Chaser spacecraft, respectively.

“Sierra Space is thrilled to partner with Blue Origin and provide the Dream Chaser spaceplane, the LIFE module and additional space technologies to open up space for commercial research, manufacturing, and tourism,” said Dr. Janet Kavandi, former three time NASA astronaut and Sierra Space president. “As a former NASA astronaut, I’ve been waiting for the moment where working and living in space is accessible to more people worldwide, and that moment has arrived.”

Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane is already being developed in partnership with NASA to send cargo to the International Space Station as soon as late 2022. Dream Chaser was also one of three vehicles being considered for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program before SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner were ultimately chosen.

Video courtesy of Blue Origin

An ever-expanding human spaceflight ecosystem

This is the second major commercial space station announcement in the last couple weeks. The other was the Nanoracks Starlab outpost, which is being developed in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin.

Nanoracks says Starlab would be a continuously-crewed platform in low Earth orbit with an initial operational capability expected to be achieved by 2027.

Already, Nanoracks has equipment aboard the International Space Station, including external CubeSat deployers, internal racks and a commercial experiment airlock called Bishop.

“Since the beginning, Nanoracks has sought to own and operate a private space station to fully unlock market demand,” Jeffrey Manber, CEO and Co-Founder of Nanoracks, said in an Oct. 21, 2021, company news release. “Our team has spent the last decade learning the business of space stations, understanding customer needs, charting market growth, and self-investing in private hardware on the ISS like the Bishop Airlock. Nanoracks and our team are excited to work with NASA and our friends across the world as we move forward with Starlab.”

A rendering of Axiom Space's proposed commercial modules attached to the ISS. Credit: Axiom Space

A rendering of Axiom Space’s proposed commercial modules attached to the ISS. Credit: Axiom Space

Starlab and Orbital Reef, should they both become operational by the end of the decade as currently anticipated, would join the Axiom Space segment of the International Space Station, which is being developed in part with NASA funding to help spur the commercialization of low Earth orbit.

The first Axiom Space module is slated to fly to the ISS as soon as 2024 and is expected to enable more commercial activity aboard the more-than-20-year-old outpost.

Axiom Space’s modules are expected to be able to be detached at the end of the International Space Station’s life at the end of this decade or the early 2030s to form an independent outpost.

If these plans all come to fruition at the end of the decade, there could be four or five space station’s operating in low Earth orbit: The ISS/Axiom station, Orbital Reef, Starlab, the Chinese Tiangong space station and potentially an independent Russian complex.

Combined with the planned intermittently-crewed Lunar Gateway in a near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon and the potential start of an Artemis Base Camp at the lunar south pole under NASA’s Artemis Moon program, there could be a multitude of destinations available for governments and commercial organizations to send people and experiments to further the expansion of science research and human spaceflight activity around the Earth-Moon system.

Video courtesy of Nanoracks

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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 blog about the International Space Station, called Orbital Velocity.

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