Starship Gets Another Customer — The Starlab Space Station

Starship Gets Another Customer — The Starlab Space Station

Voyager Space and Airbus announced today they will launch their Starlab commercial space station on SpaceX’s Starship. Unlike the International Space Station and other space station concepts, Starlab can be put into space with just one launch rather than assembled in orbit.

Starlab, a transatlantic joint venture between Voyager Space and Europe’s Airbus Defence and Space, is one of the participants in NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) effort to try to ensure that scientific researchers and others will have access to space stations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) after the ISS is decommissioned.

The 420 Metric Ton ISS is a partnership among governments — the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency. Construction of the main portion of the facility took 12 years (1998-2010) although a few more modules have been added since including Russia’s Nauka in 2021. Permanently staffed by an international crew of seven astronauts and cosmonauts rotating on 6-month schedules, the current plan is to deorbit the aging facility around 2030.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA.  The first ISS module was launched in 1998.

The question is what comes next.

The U.S. government does not want to build another ISS, but also does not want to relinquish access to earth-orbiting space stations to China, the only other country currently operating a LEO space station. NASA decided to take advantage of the burgeoning commercial space sector and help companies build new space stations through Public-Private Partnerships where NASA can be just one of many customers.

NASA’s CLD program initially had three participants: Nanoracks, subsequently acquired by Voyager Space and now building Starlab; Blue Origin, partnered with Sierra Space and building Orbital Reef; and Northrop Grumman, which withdrew last year and joined Voyager’s Starlab. In addition, NASA has an agreement with Axiom Space for the Axiom Space Station. Unlike the others, Axiom will start by adding modules to the ISS over several years. Eventually they will separate and operate as a free-flying space station.

The commercial space stations do not need to be of the size and complexity of ISS, just provide a microgravity environment compatible with NASA’s science and technology requirements and sufficiently attractive to other markets to be profitable.

Starlab is much smaller than ISS — 8 meters wide by 8 meters high (26 by 26 feet) — and requires only one launch. Today’s announcement is that they’ve chosen Starship to put it in orbit.

Credit: Voyager Space.

Voyager Chairman and CEO Dylan Taylor said “SpaceX’s history of success and reliability” led them to choose the company for Starlab. “SpaceX is the unmatched leader for high-cadence launches and we are proud Starlab will be launched to orbit in a single flight by Starship.”

Although Starship’s two test flights last year were failures, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket had 96 successful launches, a record for any rocket.

SpaceX’s Starship on the launch pad at Starbase in Boca Chica, TX before its first test flight in April 2023. The silver first stage is called Super Heavy. The second stage, covered in black thermal protection tiles, is called Starship. The combination is also called Starship. Photo credit: SpaceX

The announcement today does not mention a launch date, but when Voyager and Airbus revealed their partnership a year ago, they said the target is 2028.

By then, Starship should have quite a lot of experience, not just launching satellites into earth orbit, but in human spaceflight. NASA selected Starship to be the Human Landing System for the first two Artemis missions to put astronauts back on the lunar surface, Artemis III and Artemis IV. They are currently planned for 2026 and 2028. Several billionaires also have purchased Starship flights to earth orbit or around the Moon.

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