Blue Origin and Sierra Space Leading Team to Build “Orbital Reef” Business Park in Space

Blue Origin and Sierra Space Leading Team to Build “Orbital Reef” Business Park in Space

Blue Origin, Sierra Space and several other companies announced plans today to team together and build a “mixed use business park” in low Earth orbit called Orbital Reef. The initial facility will have three main modules providing about the same amount of usable volume as the International Space Station, but can expand if market conditions warrant. The plan is to have it assembled in the mid-2020s to allow for an orderly transition from the ISS and avoid a “space station gap.”

Executives from Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Redwire Space, and Boeing made the announcement at the International Astronautical Congress taking place in Dubai this week. Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University also are partners.

The name Orbital Reef is meant to convey that, like coral reefs on Earth, it will be an ecosystem. In this case an ecosystem of businesses, large and small, selling services to one another and otherwise interacting as a business community.

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is still in development, will be the primary launch vehicle to put the large-diameter main modules into low Earth orbit (LEO). The company also will provide the core module to which others will attach.

A second main module is a habitat from Sierra Space. Its Life Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) inflatable module has been in development for several years. (Previously the I stood for “inflatable.”) Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spacecraft will ferry crews and supplies. A cargo version of Dream Chaser, which looks like a small space shuttle, is due to make its first flight next year under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services-2 contract. The vehicle was originally designed for crews, but Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the parent company of Sierra Space, lost out to Boeing and SpaceX for NASA’s commercial crew contracts. The company continued development anyway. Former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi, now President of Sierra Space, said SNC’s owners, Fatih and Eren Ozmen, have spent $1 billion of their own money on Dream Chaser so far.

The third main module, for science, will be provided by Boeing, which built the Destiny laboratory module for the ISS and operates the U.S. portion of the ISS under contract to NASA. Boeing also will use its Starliner crew spacecraft, being developed as part of NASA’s commercial crew program, to ferry crews and cargo to Orbital Reef and operate the facility when it is up and running. Starliner’s debut has been substantially delayed and its crew test flight now is not expected until the end of next year.

Credit: Orbital Outpost

Brent Sherwood, Senior Vice President of Advanced Development at Blue Origin, said those three modules — the baseline configuration — will provide about 90 percent of the interior volume of the ISS, which has several more, but smaller, modules. It will support 10 people in its 830 cubic meters of volume, which includes large windows.

Redwire currently is engaged in additive manufacturing (3D printing) on the ISS and is providing the new Roll-Out Solar Arrays that are augmenting the station’s original electricity-producing arrays. Mike Gold, Redwire’s Executive Vice President for Civil Space and External Affairs, said today Redwire will support “innovative microgravity research, development, and manufacturing activities which will advance fields as diverse as communications and biotechnology” on Orbital Reef.

Genesis Engineering’s Single Person Spacecraft. Credit: Orbital Outpost video.

Genesis is building a “Single Person Spacecraft,” a new concept for extravehicular activity (EVA). Instead of wearing a traditional spacesuit, an astronaut will be inside a small spacecraft in a shirtsleeve environment.

Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton is leading an international group of 14 universities “to work on the ethics and guidelines of research — on how we can bring to bear all our expertise in science and research and manufacturing in low gravity, to help nations, corporations and groups that want access to Orbital Reef.”

The ISS is getting old and NASA does not want to build another one at taxpayer’s expense. Instead it wants to be just one of many customers for commercial space stations. But it wants to be sure something is ready before the ISS reaches the end of its lifetime and avoid a space station gap when it cannot do research in LEO.

For nine years, the United States could not launch anyone into space because the space shuttle program ended in 2011 and a new U.S crew space transportation system, SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, was not available until 2020. During that time it had to pay Russia to take astronauts to the ISS. At the moment, China is the only other country with a space station. It does not want to cede leadership in LEO to China, much less become dependent on China in order to do the microgravity research needed to advance human space exploration.

NASA already has a contract with Axiom Space to attach a module to the ISS in 2024 that would separate in 2028 and become a free-flying facility.  In July 2021, it opened a Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) solicitation through which between two and four companies could get a total of $400 million over four years (FY2022-2025) to develop other commercial LEO space station concepts. Proposals were due in August. Kavandi said today that her company submitted a proposal, but no longer will pursue that individually. Instead it will compete as part of this joint project.

Nanoracks, Lockheed Martin and Voyager Space also are teaming to compete to build a commercial space station, Starlab.

Sherwood, Kavandi, Gold and Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for ISS John Mulholland steered away from questions today about how much Orbital Reef will cost and how much NASA money they want. Instead they pointed to investments their companies already are making in these systems.  Asked if they need NASA to agree to be an anchor tenant, Kavandi said the agency already indicated it will.

The closest they came to a cost estimate was Sherwood saying it would be “an order of magnitude” less than ISS. An oft-used used number for the cost of ISS is $100 billion.

NASA is requesting $101 million for its commercial LEO program for FY2022. After allocating much less than the agency requested the past two years — $15 million in FY2020 and $17 million in FY2021, compared to a $150 million request each year — Congress is poised to approve more this time. The House appropriations committee recommended $45 million in July. Last week, Senate appropriators recommended the full $101 million saying NASA had “finally” provided the needed justification and roadmap for spending the funds. Neither bill has passed yet.

Gold testified to the Senate Commerce committee last week at a hearing about the future of ISS. He said at the time and again today that the most important step Congress could take is to pass a bipartisan NASA authorization bill that signals to the world that the United States is serious about maintaining a presence in LEO.

The most recent NASA authorization act was enacted in 2017. It commits the United States to the ISS “through at least 2024.” NASA is discussing an extension with the other ISS partners — Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency — and many expect agreement to be reached to keep it operating through 2030. But as former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at the hearing, there is no guarantee it will last that long. The first module was launched in 1998, so is already more than 20 years old. Cracks have been discovered in one of the Russian modules and the outside has been “pelted by debris.”

Speaking at a House Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing on September 21, NASA’s ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens spelled out the agency’s “transition indicators” as to when it is time to move on. The “first and foremost indicator is that we have commercial LEO destinations to transition to,” adding that may be “pretty obvious” but it is a “prerequisite.”

Sherwood is optimistic the initial baseline version of Orbital Reef will be ready in the latter part of this decade. “We’re not starting from scratch in terms of technology or capabilities” and will be able to control requirements since it is privately funded.

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