Orbital Reef
The proposed Orbital Reef station can be expanded over time by adding more modules, but initially will be about one-third the size depicted here. Credit: Blue Origin

DUBAI, U.A.E. — An industry group led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, and including several other companies and organizations, announced plans Oct. 25 to cooperate on the development of a commercial space station.

In a presentation associated with the 72nd International Astronautical Congress here, the industry consortium announced its intent to develop Orbital Reef, a modular space station that would be ready to host crews and payloads in the latter half of the 2020s, allowing for a transition from the International Space Station before its projected retirement at the end of the decade.

Under the partnership, Blue Origin will develop large-diameter core modules and utility systems, as well as provide launch services using its New Glenn rocket under development. Sierra Space, as “principal partner” on the effort, will contribute an inflatable module design called LIFE and its Dream Chaser cargo spaceplane, with a crewed version also planned.

Several other companies and organizations will participate on Orbital Reef. Boeing will provide a science module and its CST-100 Starliner crew vehicle, as well as handling station operations, maintenance and engineering. Redwire Space will be responsible for microgravity research and manufacturing, as well as payload operations and deployable structures. Genesis Engineering Solutions will provide a “Single Person Spacecraft” pod it is developing, while Arizona State University will lead a university consortium handing research and outreach.

“The setup of this team is what we call open vertical integration,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs at Blue Origin. “Any aspect of the end-to-end service for the commercial LEO destination can be provided by at least one, and in some cases, multiple members of this team.” Other companies, though, could potentially join the project by providing their own modules to be added to the station, he said, using standards.

“We’re joining a team where, one, we add the most value, and two, has the capability to turn this into a successful venture,” said John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and ISS program manager. “It certainly positions us to be successful over the long term.”

The group of companies came together “organically,” said Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, which has separately been working with Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Space. “It was so terrific with these existing relationships to take the next step and combine, all in pursuit of the Orbital Reef concept.”

A video played at the event depicted a station with a long core module, with several modules attached to it on opposite sides along with a series of solar arrays. Both Dream Chaser and Starliner spacecraft are shown docked to it.

That illustration represents a later version of the station, not the initial version the companies propose having in orbit by the latter half of the 2020s. That initial “baseline configuration,” Sherwood said, would be about one-third that size, with a single set of solar arrays and radiators called an “energy mast,” a core module, a LIFE habitat module and a science module.

“The architecture is designed so that it is infinitely scalable by ganging together additional core modules and energy masts, and attach modules on the sides,” he said. “It can increment in length, which is what adds the additional utility capacity and docking ports and so forth.”

The baseline configuration, though, would still accommodate up to 10 people, with 100 kilowatts of power and a volume a little more than 90% that of the International Space Station. “It’s of comparable scale to station, and then set up for indefinite growth beyond that.”

The companies declined to say how much Orbital Reef would cost, other than Sherwood estimating it would be “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station’s estimated $100 billion price tag. They also declined to state how much they were investing in the project, although Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, noted that its parent company, privately held Sierra Nevada Corporation, has put more than $1 billion into Dream Chaser development and an unspecified amount into LIFE.

Sierra Space had expressed an interest in going it alone on a commercial space station concept, using LIFE modules and Dream Chaser. “What we determined is that, by working together here, it allows us to merge our capabilities, our very complementary capabilities,” Kavandi said. “Everyone comes together to build a very complete capability in space. It helps relieve the cost, so all the burden isn’t placed on one company.”

The companies are bidding on NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program, which will offer up to four awards to support initial studies of commercial space stations that could succeed the ISS by the end of the decade. A second phase of the program would fund work to certify the stations for NASA astronauts.

Sherwood suggested the companies are already moving ahead with work on Orbital Reef while awaiting NASA’s awards. “Phase 2 doesn’t start until the middle part of the decade in NASA’s current plan,” he said. “You can’t start in the middle part of the decade and have a station ready to be operating so that you can have an overlap in operational capability before the ISS is retired, if it’s retired in 2030. That requires investment in these systems prior to any award by NASA.”

Orbital Reef joins Starlab, a commercial space station concept announced Oct. 21 by Nanoracks, Voyager Space Holdings and Lockheed Martin. Axiom Space is developing a commercial module for the ISS that it intends to be the core of a future commercial space station.

All those efforts are going after similar customers, which include NASA and other governments. Companies interested in microgravity research and space tourists are also potential markets.

They are racing to get their stations in operation before the ISS is retired, which is widely expected to be around 2030. That schedule requires the stations to be in orbit by the late 2020s to enable NASA to transition from the ISS to avoid a gap that witnesses, including Gold, warned about during an Oct. 21 Senate hearing.

“What we need is to demonstrate a bipartisan commitment to preventing an American gap in LEO,” Gold said, through language in a NASA authorization bill backing that approach. “There’s simply no better way to send that message, both domestically and internationally, than in a bipartisan authorization bill.”

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 with honors in geophysics and planetary science...