Startup announces plans for low-cost commercial space station

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WASHINGTON — A startup claims it will be able to place a single-module commercial space station into orbit by 2022, although the company faces multiple and significant technical and financial hurdles.

Orion Span announced April 5 plans to develop what it calls the Aurora Station, a space station it says will be the “first luxury space hotel” in orbit. The company unveiled its plans at the Space 2.0 conference in San Jose, California.

In an interview, Frank Bunger, chief executive of Orion Span, said he believes there’s a strong demand for orbital space tourism. “We reckon with 18,000 NASA astronaut applicants per year, there is a market for people who want to feel what it’s like to be an astronaut,” he said. “We’re selling an authentic astronaut experience.”

While the proposed station is intended to be modular and expandable, Bunger said it could be operational with just the launch of a single module with a volume of 160 cubic meters. Aurora Station, in that mode, could support six people, including two crew members.

“It’s a single-module space station. It’s turnkey in operations,” he said. “When you launch it, it’s immediately in service. It’s not something where you launch bits and pieces and assemble them or inflate them.”

Bunger claimed that the module could be developed and launched for “tens of millions” of dollars, but declined to give a more specific figure. That estimated cost is much less than many satellites. He said “proprietary technology” and business arrangements, including bartering for some services, explained the remarkably low cost, but offered few other details.

Those arrangements also extended to the launch of the module. “We’re trying to barter our way out of that,” he said, which would give Orion Span either a free launch or one at a “greatly reduced” price. His company would offer the launch provider, in exchange, capacity on the station.

Orion Span plans to offer 12-day trips to its station for $9.5 million. Bunger said that is an all-inclusive price that covers three months of pre-flight training, some of which would be done online, as well as transportation to and from the station.

He was vague about how the company could afford those flights at that overall mission price. “That will be through partnerships with SpaceX, Blue Origin or a space agency,” he said. While SpaceX is developing its Crew Dragon vehicle for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Blue Origin doesn’t plan to have a crewed orbital vehicle in service by the early 2020s.

Orion Span plans to build the Aurora Station module itself, at a factory in Houston. However, Bunger acknowledged that the company doesn’t yet have such a facility. “We’ll probably be getting that in the next six to nine months,” he said.

The company currently has six employees, only some of whom have backgrounds in space. Bunger previously worked as a vice president at an information technology company, and worked in management and engineering positions at several other such companies, according to his LinkedIn profile. Others do have spaceflight experience, including one who worked on the design of Enterprise, a commercial module proposed for the ISS nearly two decades ago by Spacehab but never flown.

Bunger declined to disclose how much money Orion Span has raised, but said they had closed the equivalent a seed round, which usually involves only a small fraction of a company’s overall capital requirements. “We are getting some interest and are looking for the right firm to partner with for funding,” he said. “We want to look for someone who is not looking for a quick flip. It’s going to have to be for the long haul.”

In addition to announcing plans to develop Aurora Station, Orion Span said it would start collecting $80,000 ticket deposits. Those deposits, Bunger said, would be held in escrow and be fully refundable.