Blue Origin unveils plans for commercial space station

Blue Origin and Sierra Space are leading development of a privately-funded space station known as “Orbital Reef” to provide a commercial destination in low-Earth orbit after the International Space Station is retired, officials announced Monday.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said an initial version of the outpost will be flying before 2030. The project would partner with Redwire Space and Genesis Engineering, Boeing, Redwire Space, Arizona State University, and Genesis Engineering.

” The International Space Station is close to retirement,” he stated. He stated that the future will see increased demand in new areas and continued research. Supply will not be governmental, but commercial. Private investment is now possible to test the viability of orbital markets. “

Artist’s impression showing the Orbital Reef station. A Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spaceplane is docked at one end, and a Boeing Starliner capsule is berthed on the other.

Blue Origin

He said the team believes Orbital Reef will appeal to three broad market segments: governments around the world, both space-faring nations and those without such capabilities; companies seeking research or industrial opportunities in space; and “adventurers, tourists and citizens. “

“Orbital Reef offers world-class technical accommodation and features a futuristic space architecture. It has big volumes and big hatches and faces Earth from a canopy with huge windows. There is also a central thoroughfare that connects functional modules. This makes it easy to go outside and provides a safe and convenient way for people to explore the area. The latter is a one-person craft that Genesis Engineering Solutions has developed to allow researchers to explore outside of the station.

In a video animation, Orbital Reef is shown with large, deployable solar arrays, radiators and linked modules in a long central axis with docking ports on each end and other compartments berthed at 90-degree angles. Sierra Nevada’s core module will be 27-feet across. Sherwood stated that although the futuristic design may seem far-fetched given the timeframe, it is not impossible. All the essential things we need to know or understand have been proven in some way.

” This is a significant step in the right direction and allows for much faster development. Private funding allows us to manage requirements more efficiently and maintain a schedule that is aggressive than with government-funded programs. “

The Orbital Reef space station features large Earth-facing bay windows and a small one-person spacecraft, seen here in a frame from an animation, that could be used by passengers to venture outside the lab complex without the need for a spacesuit.

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rockets, currently being developed at a sprawling manufacturing facility near the Kennedy Space Center, will be used to launch major modules while Sierra Nevada will provide the core life module and its Dream Chaser winged spaceplane for passenger and cargo transportation.

Boeing is NASA’s principal contractor for the International Space Station. It will supply Orbital Reef with its science module and engineering support. Redwire Space supplies deployable solar arrays and microgravity research capabilities.

Arizona State University agreed to be the leader of a group of universities that provide research guidance and outreach.

“Orbital Reef will operate as an off-world mixed-use business park, a standard terrestrial real estate practice,” Sherwood said. “This business model will expand access, lower costs and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize spaceflight. “

John Mulholland is Boeing’s International Space Station program manger. He said that the Orbital Reef would build upon the NASA space laboratory’s experience.

“The Reef is scheduled to launch later in the decade. It will overlap with the ISS’ operations, he stated. This overlap is crucial in NASA’s goal to not end ISS operations before another LEO (low Earth orbit) platform becomes operational.

” We have committed to maintaining and operating the Reef, as well as providing a science module to continue answering fundamental questions in microgravity. Janet Kavandi (HTMO_ Sierra Space President), a former astronaut on the spacecraft, stated that NASA has already confirmed their intention to become an anchor tenant. “

” The plan was always to let LEO commercialization take place so NASA can concentrate on exploring the moon and Mars.” she stated.

Sherwood said Orbital Reef is a private venture and as such, he declined to discuss how much the project might cost other than to say it would be “an order of magnitude” less expensive than the International Space Station.

William Harwood


Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He covered 129 space shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2’s flyby of Neptune and scores of commercial and military launches. Harwood, based at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, is an avid amateur astronomer who co-authored “Comm Check: Columbia’s Final Flight”. “

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