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 — Nanoracks, its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, will collaborate on the development of a commercial space station as others in industry warn of a potential space station gap.

Nanoracks said Oct. 21 that it was partnering with Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space on a commercial space station called Starlab. Nanoracks will be the prime contractor with Voyager handling strategy and investment and Lockheed serving as the manufacturer and technical integrator.

Starlab would consist of a docking node with an inflatable module attached to one side and a spacecraft bus, providing power and propulsion, attached to the other side. Starlab will have a volume of 340 cubic meters, about three-eighths that of the International Space Station, and generate 60 kilowatts of power. Starlab will be equipped with a robotic arm and “state-of-the-art” lab, and be able to host four astronauts at a time.

Nanoracks, which got its start flying payloads to the ISS, has made it increasingly clear in recent years it was interested in a commercial space station. In August, it hired a former NASA executive, Marshall Smith, to lead its commercial space station development efforts.

“Since the beginning, Nanoracks has sought to own and operate a private space station to fully unlock market demand,” Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks, said in a statement. That work has included flying payloads to the ISS and installing a commercial airlock, called Bishop, there last year. “Nanoracks and our team are excited to work with NASA and our friends across the world as we move forward with Starlab.”

“Lockheed Martin’s extensive experience in building complex spacecraft and systems, coupled with Nanoracks’ commercial business innovation and Voyager’s financial expertise, allows our team to create a customer-focused space station that will fuel our future vision,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of commercial civil space, said in the statement. She noted the company had invested in habitat technology that “enables us to propose a cost-effective, mission-driven spacecraft design for Starlab.”

The companies said that Starlab could reach an initial operational capability as soon as 2027. They did not disclose the estimated cost of the project or how it would be financed.

The companies are among many seeking to participate in NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program. That program, announced earlier this year, will provide NASA funding for initial studies of commercial space stations, then certify those stations for use by NASA astronauts.

An estimated 10 to 12 companies submitted proposals for the first phase of the CLD program, with NASA expected to make two to four awards. Axiom Space, which has a NASA award to attach a commercial module to the ISS, has announced plans to use that module as a core of a future space station. Other companies, such as Blue Origin and Sierra Space, have either proposed space station concepts or indicated an interest in stations through job listings.

Worrying about a space station gap

NASA’s goal with CLD is to stimulate development of one or more commercial space stations by the late 2020s, allowing the agency to smoothly transition to those stations from the ISS. But at a congressional hearing Oct. 21, witnesses that included a former NASA administrator warned those commercial stations might not be complete before the ISS is retired.

“We are not ready for what comes after the International Space Station,” said former administrator Jim Bridenstine at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee. “Building a space station takes a long time, especially when you’re doing it in a way that’s never been done before.”

Bridenstine said he supported efforts in the Senate to extend ISS to 2030, but cautioned that the station could suffer a problem at any time before then that would effectively end the program.

He said NASA’s CLD program was not sufficiently funded. A Senate appropriations bill this week offered $101 million for the program, the amount requested. “I am telling you, sir, it is still not enough,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “The Senate should absolutely declare that NASA needs to tell it when is the objective to have that new station, and the Senate needs to fund the requirements to achieve that.”

He didn’t offer a dollar amount in the hearing, but did in written testimony. “Congress needs to fund NASA’s LEO commercialization efforts at $2 billion per year,” he wrote. “If Congress does this, capital markets and entrepreneurs will respond in a way that establishes America as preeminent in LEO human spaceflight at a cost significantly less than the ISS.”

The current funding falls short of even supporting NASA’s existing $140 million agreement with Axiom Space for access to an ISS port. “That $101 million that Jim is talking about, when you look at how NASA is planning to allocate it, does not meet the commitment to Axiom for 2022,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive vice president for government affairs at Axiom Space and another witness at the hearing. “The work that needs to go to the space station side of it, for the station to do the analysis that’s needed to ensure that Axiom can reach orbit and dock by 2024, is not funded completely in that amount.”

She said NASA needed to provide more details about its ISS transition plans, including specific objectives and requirements. “NASA has yet to clearly define its needs for services after the ISS ends, nor does it plan to do so for some time,” she said.

Dittmar and others at the hearing raised the prospect of a “space station gap” where the ISS ends before commercial stations are established. That could drive companies and countries to use China’s space station. She noted that U.S. companies have already complained about losing customers to China but did not name specific cases. In August, Nanoracks’ Manber said he had lost one customer to China’s station.

“I am alarmed by what I see as the potential for a gap,” she said.

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...