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Airbus joins Starlab commercial space station project

Starlab
Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin will collaborate on development of Starlab, a commercial space station that could launch as soon as 2027. Credit: Nanoracks

WASHINGTON — Airbus Defence and Space is joining a commercial space station project led by Voyager Space, a move that could potentially make it easier for European governments to use the station after the retirement of the International Space Station.

Denver-based Voyager Space announced Jan. 4 a partnership with Airbus on its Starlab commercial space station project. Airbus will provide “technical design support and expertise” for Starlab, the companies said, but did not disclose additional details about the partnership or financial terms.

Voyager Space announced plans for Starlab in October 2021 working with Lockheed Martin. Starlab, as described at the time, would feature in inflatable module, docking node and bus, capable of hosting up to four astronauts at a time.

Voyager Space, through its subsidiary Nanoracks, won one of three NASA Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development, or CLD, awards from NASA in December 2021. The $160 million Space Act Agreement is intended to support design work on Starlab as NASA prepares to transition from the ISS to commercial space stations by the end of the decade.

That transition will also involve NASA’s international partners on the ISS, something that both Airbus and Voyager Space officials alluded to in the announcement of their partnership. “Working with Airbus we will expand Starlab’s ecosystem to serve the European Space Agency (ESA) and its member state space agencies to continue their microgravity research in LEO,” Dylan Taylor, chairman and chief executive of Voyager Space, said in the announcement.

“This collaboration is an important step in making Starlab a reality, providing a foundation for long-lasting European and American leadership in space,” said Jean-Marc Nasr, executive vice president of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, in the same statement.

ISS partners have pondered how they will make use of commercial space stations run by American companies. Current ISS arrangements, where space agencies barter for services, are unlikely to apply to commercial facilities, where agencies may have to work directly with the station’s operator rather than through NASA.

“We need to find ways to work together, certainly in other ways than we did before,” said Peter Gräf, director of applications and science at the German space agency DLR, during a panel discussion at the AIAA ASCEND conference in October. “There are a lot of options available and the main players are in heavy discussions on that.”

Direct payments from European governments to American companies for use of commercial space stations could be politically problematic. “The taxpayers in Europe don’t want to pay directly to private American companies,” said Nicolas Maubert, space counselor at the French Embassy in the U.S. and representative of the French space agency CNES in the U.S., at the conference panel. Those concerns may be alleviated, though, if companies from Europe and other ISS partners are involved with the stations.

ESA officials, who are beginning work on their post-ISS plans, are aware of those concerns. “Shall we pay directly to commercial providers in the U.S.? We can, of course, but that is euros directly supporting U.S. industry. Is that something Europe wants to do, that our member states want to do?” said Frank De Winne, head of ESA’s European Astronaut Center, in an interview during ESA’s ministerial council meeting in Paris in November.

How ESA will deal with commercial space stations is something the agency will study leading up to its next ministerial council meeting in 2025, but he said one option would be for ESA to fund development of a European crewed vehicle that could service those stations.

“If we talk to the commercial providers today, to the CLDs that are being funded by NASA, they all tell us the same thing: they are interested in transportation,” he said. “For them to keep their costs low on transportation, they want competition. It’s as simple as that.”

Airbus is not the first European company to be involved in a commercial space station project. Thales Alenia Space is building modules for Axiom Space that will initially be installed on the ISS but eventually be detached to form a commercial space station.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree...