WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman and Voyager Space executives said their decision to work together on a commercial space station project, rather than pursue competing efforts, is a natural progression for an emerging industry.
The two companies announced a partnership Oct. 4 where Northrop Grumman will develop a version of its Cygnus spacecraft capable of docking autonomously to Voyager’s Starlab space station, along with other potential future contributions. Northop will also end development of its own proposed commercial station.
In a joint interview, Steve Krein, vice president of civil and commercial space at Northrop Grumman, and Dylan Taylor, chief executive of Voyager Space, said the partnership emerged from discussions the two companies had about using Cygnus vehicles to provide cargo transportation to Starlab.
“We started talking about if we could combine the best elements of both teams— our cargo logistics and human spaceflight experience with the capabilities of Voyager — to develop what I’ll call the ‘dream team,’” Krein said. “We realized in short order that was a really good combination.”
Taylor said Voyager started considering a partnership with Northrop after setting up a joint venture with Airbus to develop Starlab that was announced in August. “We have a good relationship with Northrop. They are, in my opinion, the best hardware manufacturer in aerospace and defense,” he said. “We were in a position to have a conversation with them regarding how they might be able to help our project along.”
“Adding Northrop to the team further strengthens the project, and I think further strengthens the likelihood that this will be the first station flying and will be the right solution to replace the International Space Station when it’s deorbited,” he said of Starlab.
Krein said Northrop concluded there was a stronger business case to work as a partner with Voyager rather than go it alone with its own station. “Although we’ve made a significant amount of progress and understood the business case,” he said, “there was just a stronger case to be made for a combination of the talents, expertise and subject matter experts with ourselves, Voyager and their partners.”
He said that a partnership provided greater assurance that a station could be ready in time to meet NASA’s need to have at least one commercial station ready before the end of the decade. Such partnerships, he added, were part of the “natural consolidation” of any industry.
Taylor agreed. “It’s natural that there will be consolidation of skill sets and talent in the commercialization of private space stations in LEO,” he said. “Northrop was a very obvious, compelling partner to enhance the project.”
Under the partnership, Voyager will pay Northrop an unspecified amount for upgrading the Cygnus for automated docking, as well as agree to purchase a set number of Cygnus flights. Taylor said the companies are “actively scoping” additional Northrop contributions to Starlab, looking at “a lot of different areas to get Northrop and the technical capability involved in the project.”
Northrop will be able to provide Cygnus cargo resupply services to other customers as part of the agreement. “We’re in discussions with just about everybody that’s going to be having commercial space stations,” Krein said, as well as talks with NASA about how to ensure support for the ISS “to 2030 and beyond.”
While the partnership means that one fewer company is now pursuing a station to succeed the ISS, NASA saw the arrangement as a positive development. “Refining strategies and evolving partnerships are part of the process as we build a robust low Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers,” said Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s commercial LEO development program, in an agency statement Oct. 3.
Both Krein and Taylor said they were pleased with NASA’s approach to supporting commercial space station development. “We’re very comfortable with where NASA is right now,” Taylor said. He added he would like to see, as the effort advances, more details from NASA about its requirements and its expected demand for commercial space station facilities. “The clearer that demand signal is, the easier it is to get the market excited about what it is we’re doing.”
“What’s important is that we have no space station gap. So we’re cheering everybody on and don’t want anyone to fail,” he said. “But we’re highly confident that Starlab is the right solution for this commercial opportunity.”