Orbital Reef passes design review

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Orbital Reef, a commercial space station being developed by a consortium of companies, has completed an initial design review as part of a NASA award.

Blue Origin and Sierra Space, the lead partners in the project, announced April 5 that Orbital Reef completed a system requirements review. The review was one of the first milestones in a $130 million funded Space Act Agreement NASA awarded the companies as part of its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations, or CLD, program.

The review examined the design of Orbital Reef as well as its technical specifications, planned operations and feasibility of development plans. Sierra Space said the review led to no changes in the station’s design.

The review “is a significant milestone toward commercializing low Earth orbit,” Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin, said in a statement. “What’s especially exciting is how the Orbital Reef team is combining NASA’s goals with the needs of others to promote new commercial markets.”

Blue Origin and Sierra Space announced Orbital Reef in October 2021 as part of a partnership with Boeing, Redwire Space and several other companies and organizations. The station will ultimately feature a series of laboratory and habitation modules. Blue Origin will develop the station’s core modules and provide launch services on its New Glenn rocket, while Sierra Space will offer its LIFE expandable modules and Dream Chaser vehicle for cargo and crew transportation.

Orbital Reef was one of three proposals to win NASA CLD awards. A team that includes Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin received $160 million to work on its Starlab station, while Northrop Grumman received $125.6 million for a station based on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and the HALO module it is developing for NASA’s lunar Gateway. 

In addition to the CLD awards, Axiom Space has a $140 million NASA contract to use a port on the International Space Station for attaching a series of commercial modules that will form the core of a later standalone space station. NASA expects one or more of these commercial space stations to be ready by late this decade so that the ISS can be retired in 2030.

“We’re going as fast as we can,” Steve Lindsey, chief strategy officer at Sierra Space, said during a panel at the Goddard Memorial Symposium March 25. “We don’t want to have a gap like we did with crew back in the last decade.”

NASA’s Commercial LEO Development effort received $101.5 million for 2022, the amount the agency requested. NASA is asking for $224 million for the program in its 2023 budget proposal released March 28.

“We are building a platform in space to benefit life on Earth and forming a catalyst for disruptive technological breakthroughs and innovations that will shape the world of tomorrow,” said Tom Vice, chief executive of Sierra Space, in a statement. “It is clear that having achieved this key program milestone, and the maturity of the system we are building with Blue Origin, that we are a step closer to realizing that vision.”