Just months after completing its first human space flight, Blue Origin has announced plans to build and operate a new space station to be operational by the late 2020s. The timeline is ambitious since the company has yet to put a manned flight in orbit, but Blue Origin swears by its plan.
Coined “Orbital Reef,” the station will be built to operate in low-earth orbit and the company bills it as a “mixed-use business park” which will be used for commerce, research, and tourism.
“The station will open the next chapter of human space exploration and development by facilitating the growth of a vibrant ecosystem and business model for the future,” Blue Origin said in a statement.
The company states that the new space station will be comparable in size with the International Space Station, at 29,311-cubic-feet (for comparison, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet). Initially complementing the International Space Station, Orbital Reef would eventually replace the ISS which is expected to retire by 2030. Russian officials have previously warned that they could jump ship by 2025 over fears that outdated equipment on the ISS poses a danger to those aboard.
However, the station would also have a commercial component. It would provide an ideal setting for film-making in microgravity alongside cutting-edge research and even a space hotel.
“For over 60 years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital spaceflight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs.
While Blue Origin will be responsible for a few modules and the New Glenn heavy-lift rocket (scheduled to make its first launch attempt in late 2022), it will also partner with four other organizations to operate the space station. Boeing will be in charge of operations and maintenance and will provide a few of the science modules and the use of the Starliner capsule; Sierra Space’s expandable Large Integrated Flexible Environment modules will serve as Orbital Reef’s primary living quarters; if needed, Sierra’s Dream Chaser space plane will be used for cargo and crew delivery; the solar arrays will be provided by Redwire Space; and Genesis Engineering Solutions will contribute a single-person craft allowing for visitors to take spacewalks outside the station.
“Like real reefs, the Orbital Reef will touch many, many countries throughout the world,” Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, said during a news conference. “This isn’t an American station. This will be a global station that will carry on the proud international legacy of the ISS.”
Whether with Blue Origin or a different company, NASA plans to allocate up to $400 million to private space companies to kick-start construction on an ISS replacement, which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the initial move-in day last year.
The Low Earth Orbit may be getting a bit congested in the coming decades: Lockheed Martin and Nanoracks unveiled their own space station last week called Starlab while Axiom Space works on their own concept. China’s Tiangong station could be finished as early as next year. The new space race is becoming more and more interesting with each passing day.