NASA has awarded a combined total of about $415.6m to Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to develop commercial space stations in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO).
Blue Origin has been awarded $130m, Nanoracks $160m, and Northrop Grumman $125.6m through NASA’s commercial LEO development programme.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialise space activities. With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with US companies to develop space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”
The awards are the first in a two-phase approach to ensure a seamless transition of activity from the International Space Station to commercial destinations. During this first phase, private industry, in coordination with NASA, will formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs. The first phase is expected to continue through 2025.
Blue Origin and Sierra Space have partnered to develop Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station to be built in low-Earth orbit, which will start operating in the second half of this decade. Orbital Reef teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. Orbital Reef’s human-centred space architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that provides the essential infrastructure needed to support all types of human spaceflight activity in low-Earth orbit and can be scaled to serve new markets.
Nanoracks’ commercial low-Earth orbit destination, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is called Starlab. Starlab is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity, and ensuring continued US presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.
Starlab will host the George Washington Carver Science Park featuring four main operational departments – a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area – to meet the needs of researchers and commercial customers for commercial space activities.
The design leverages flight-proven elements, such as the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo delivery to the International Space Station, to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond the initial design.
For the second phase of NASA’s approach to a transition toward commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, the agency intends to certify for NASA crew member to use commercial low-Earth orbit destinations from these and potential other entrants, and ultimately, purchase services from destination providers for the crew to use when available. This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost, enabling NASA to focus on its Artemis missions to the Moon and on to Mars while continuing to use low-Earth orbit as a training and proving ground.
Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is part of NASA’s broader efforts to build a robust low-Earth orbit economy, including supporting commercial activity and enabling the first private astronaut mission to the space station. In addition to these new awards, NASA selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to design and develop commercial modules to attach to the station. NASA and Axiom recently completed the preliminary design review of two modules as well as the critical design review of the module’s primary structure.