The International Space Station may have a wealth of private successors.
Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Space and several other partners announced today (Oct. 25) that they plan to build a commercial off-Earth outpost called Orbital Reef, which is scheduled to be up and running by the late 2020s.
Orbital Reef's envisioned customers include national governments, private industry and space tourists, project team members said. The outpost will initially complement but eventually take the baton from the International Space Station (ISS), which is expected to be retired in the 2028 to 2030 timeframe.
"For over 60 years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital spaceflight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade," Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin, said in a statement today (opens in new tab).
"We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize spaceflight," he added. "A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments and global awareness."
Today's announcement comes just four days after Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin unveiled plans for their own private station, called Starlab. And Houston company Axiom Space had previously announced its intention to launch modules to the ISS beginning in 2024, then eventually detach them and operate them as a free-flying commercial outpost.
Meet Orbital Reef
Orbital Reef is a collaboration involving some heavy hitters in the space industry. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin will provide some modules, and its New Glenn heavy-lift rocket, which is scheduled to lift off for the first time in late 2022, will be the primary launcher used to get station hardware to space.
Boeing, which is a key partner in the ISS program, will be in charge of Orbital Reef operations and maintenance. The company will also provide science modules, and its Starliner capsule will deliver people and cargo to the outpost. (Boeing holds a NASA contract to ferry agency astronauts to and from the ISS with Starliner, and the capsule is gearing up for a crucial uncrewed test flight to the orbital lab in the first half of 2022.)
Sierra Space's expandable Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) modules will serve as Orbital Reef's primary living quarters. The company's Dream Chaser space plane will also be available for possible cargo and crew delivery, company representatives said.
Redwire Space will provide the solar arrays and other deployable structures. The company, whose subsidiary Made In Space has sent multiple 3D printers to the ISS, will also provide payload operations and support research and manufacturing work.
Genesis Engineering Solutions will contribute a single-person spacecraft, which will allow Orbital Reef visitors to take spacewalks from the outpost. And Arizona State University will lead a consortium of 14 universities that provide research advice and public outreach.
The plan calls for getting Orbital Reef up and running by the late 2020s, in a "baseline configuration" that consists of a power system, a core module, a LIFE habitat, a science module and a Genesis spacecraft. This initial outpost will feature 29,311 cubic feet (830 cubic meters) of pressurized volume and be able to support up to 10 people, Sherwood said in a news conference today from the International Astronautical Conference in Dubai.
For comparison, the ISS has 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubic m) of internal volume, which is equivalent to that of a Boeing 747 jet. The four-person Starlab will have a habitat module with 12,000 cubic feet (340 cubic m) of volume.
But Orbital Reef will keep growing over time, with many more modules eventually being attached, if all goes according to plan. And project team members want it to serve many customers around the globe.
"Like real reefs, the Orbital Reef will touch many, many countries throughout the world," Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire, said during the news conference today. "This isn't an American station. This will be a global station that will carry on the proud international legacy of the ISS."
NASA wants to groom private ISS successors
NASA aims to encourage the development of Orbital Reef, Starlab, Axiom Station and other commercial outposts via Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD), a two-phase program modeled on the agency's successful strategy for getting private cargo and crew deliveries to the ISS up and running.
"In the first phase, NASA will pursue multiple funded Space Act Agreements for early concept development of commercial destinations," agency officials wrote in a CLD update earlier this year (opens in new tab). "In the second phase, NASA intends to purchase destination services when such services become available for purchase."
Orbital Reef team members hope to secure some NASA funding eventually, but they're not waiting around for it.
"You can't start in the middle part of the decade and have a station ready to be operating so that you can have an overlap in operational capability before the ISS is retired, if it's retired in 2030," Sherwood said during today's press conference. He noted that Phase 1 CLD funding is expected to be "small" and Phase 2 money likely won't be awarded until the mid-2020s.
So Orbital Reef's partners are putting a lot of their own money into the project. Sherwood declined to provide a cost estimate for the commercial outpost, but he did say it will be "at least an order of magnitude less" than the ISS' roughly $100 billion price tag.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).