Blue Origin’s team wins a $130M share of NASA funding for commercial space stations

An artist’s conception shows the Orbital Reef space station with a single-person spacecraft and Boeing’s Starliner space taxi flying nearby, and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane docked to a port. (Orbital Reef Illustration)

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and its partners have won a $130 million award to jump-start the design of their Orbital Reef commercial space station, which could take shape during the waning years of the International Space Station.

Two other teams also won NASA funding for their design efforts: Houston-based Nanoracks will get $160 million for its Starlab concept, while Northrop Grumman will get $125.6 million for its proposal.

Blue Origin — which is headquartered in Kent, Wash. — is partnering with Sierra Space as well as Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University on Orbital Reef.

The project is envisioned as an expandable business park, with Boeing’s Starliner space taxi and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser space plane transporting passengers to and from low Earth orbit for tourism, research, in-space manufacturing projects and more. NASA could presumably use Orbital Reef or the other commercial space platforms as a way station and training facility for missions beyond Earth orbit.

“We are pleased that NASA supports the development of Orbital Reef, a revolutionary approach to making Earth orbit more accessible to diverse customers and industries,” Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, said today in a news release.

“In addition to meeting the ISS partners’ needs, the Orbital Reef mixed-use space business park will offer reduced costs and complexity, turnkey services, and inspiring space architecture to support any business,” Sherwood said. “No one knows how commercial LEO markets will develop, but we intend to find out.”

NASA’s support for commercial LEO outposts follows the model set for resupplying the International Space Station, transporting crews of astronauts, and developing lunar landers for future moon missions.

“With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the 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,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a news release.

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Blue Origin and Colorado-based Sierra Space are the principal partners in the Orbital Reef project. Boeing will provide its expertise in space station development and management, as well as Starliner transport services. Redwire Space will focus on research payload development and operations as well as large-scale deployable structures.

Genesis Engineering will develop its Single Person Spacecraft — basically, a “2001”-style pod equipped with robotic tools —for routine operations and tourist excursions. And Arizona State University will lead a global consortium focusing on research services and public outreach.

The two other teams plan similar divisions of labor: Northrop Grumman will build on its experience with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft as well as with its on-orbit robotic servicing spacecraft and the moon-orbiting habitation module it’s building for NASA. Northrop Grumman’s team includes Dynetics and other partners to be named later.

An artist’s conception shows Northrop Grumman’s space station. (Northrop Grumman Illustration)
An artist’s conception shows Nanoracks’ Starlab space station in orbit. (Nanoracks / Lockheed Martin / Voyager Space Illustration)

Nanoracks, meanwhile, is partnering with Voyager Space (which is the majority shareholder in Nanoracks) and Lockheed Martin. Nanoracks will draw upon its experience in payload logistics and deployment, Lockheed Martin will provide a large inflatable habitat and other hardware, and Voyager will capitalize on its expertise in investment strategy and operational integration.

The awards announced today will support design and development efforts through 2025. That would set the stage for follow-up awards from NASA, aimed at certifying commercial space stations and procuring payload and crew hosting services.

Space agency officials expect to continue supporting the International Space Station until at least 2028, but they recognize that the orbital outpost — which has been in existence since 1998 — may have to be retired and perhaps broken up not long afterward. That’s the reason for the current focus on next-generation space stations.

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Last year, NASA struck a $140 million deal with Houston-based Axiom Space to provide a commercial habitation module for the International Space Station — a module that Axiom says could be split off to serve as the basis for a free-flying space station in the future.

Previously: The long-range plan for Orbital Reef

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