Another Commercial Space Station — Starlab

Nanoracks, a long-time provider of solutions for the International Space Station (ISS), working with their parent company Voyager Space Holdings–a Commercial Space integration and capital company, and Lockheed–an aerospace manufacturer, have begun building a private space station that they intend to launch in 2027.

The Bishop Airlock by Nanoracks

Nanoracks currently has a module connected to the ISS called the Bishop Airlock that is used for deploying things to space and can also be used for disposing of trash to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. They also send off cubesats using the Nanoracks Cubesat Deployer attached to the station. In addition, they built a very useful service platform that the ISS astronauts use outside the station and a spectrophotometer that the astronauts use inside the station. They also partner with the Cygnus resupply ship to deploy cubesats to higher orbits than the ISS. As a NASA partner, they have constant access to technical data and expertise from NASA.

Their benefactor, Voyager Space Holdings, provides cash to invest in various New Space endeavors. They prefer to invest in established companies like Nanoracks instead of startups and like to integrate between their various partners to come up with new projects to develop.

Lockheed Martin, of course, is a very experienced builder of aircraft and spacecraft both old and new…an Old Space developer that, unlike Boeing, seems to have found ways to compete effectively in the New Space arena. They’re long-term partners with NASA and thus have constant access to their technical database and technical expertise. In fact, they’ve actually been at this sort of thing longer than NASA and been a core contractor for NASA throughout its six decades-long history.

Today, Lockheed Martin Corporation appears to be growth oriented enough to attract some investment interest from me. In fact, I think I’ll start looking for a good place to jump on that train starting Monday morning (Oct 25, 2021). They’re the only publicly traded company (LMT) involved in this project that I can see (if you know of any others please comment below) and Starlab looks well enough funded and managed, with enough expertise involved in it to have a great chance of succeeding. Unlike Bigelow, a company before their time, Nanoracks also seems well timed to exploit the new momentum in crewed commercial activities in space. This planned Starlab space station, if all goes as planned, would come online just in time to see the planned retirement of the ISS. NASA has been investing in commercial Low-Earth orbit logistics providers through their Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination (CLD) project with the aim of becoming commercial logistics customers rather than providers. NASA shouldn’t own infrastructure…the ISS seems to hold the world record in crewed space efforts surviving the fickle needs of government sponsorship.

Nanoracks Starlab

Starlab, designed to host a crew of four (the same as the crew of the SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule), would become the first commercial space station, since Axium plans to start building their space station in 2024 as an outgrowth of the ISS, but don’t plan to separate it from the station until 2028. One thing this means is that these two separate companies will now compete to see who gets the badge of “First Ever” as we all rocket together toward true routine access to space.

Model of the Bigelow Aerospace Space Complex Bravo. Photo credit Wikipedia.

I know what some of you are thinking, “What about Bigelow?” I’ve been talking excitedly about Bigelow here for years and the photo of the Starlab station has an inflatable module like those that Bigelow builds (shown above). Well, that is not strictly Bigelow tech and this one really is going to be built by Lockheed Martin and not Bigelow. I recently learned that Bigelow laid off all of their employees for Covid last March and have still not brought them back. Boeing’s CST-100 has still not had a successful flight test yet either…and they and Bigelow are partners…so maybe Bigelow is waiting for them. Once CST-100 has a successful un-crewed test flight, a successful crewed flight, and begins flight operations for NASA, they too will be ready to engage in commercial space activities like the SpaceX Crew Dragon has. Then Bigelow can start selling modules that they have already built and start hiring folks again. I’m very concerned about their and Boeing’s prices being able to compete though, but the commercial human space habitation industry will be in full swing and in a rapidly expanding market like that there might be room for over priced launch and habitation services. We’ll see. I wouldn’t count Bigelow out just yet. Three competitors are better than two, so I hope it works out. Bigelow deserves to play a part…but it won’t pay for them to drag their feet. I hope someone over there is awake and listening, prepared with funding and making some plans to get moving again real soon.

The SpaceX Starship will be in operation by 2028 as well, and probably a lot sooner, with a crew capacity larger than that of all three of these stations combined and likely a lift capacity and launch cadence to orbit any of them on short notice. It can also theoretically replace any or all of them and SpaceX will want to test and extend its time on orbit to prepare to send that design on very long-duration flights to the Moon and Mars.

Photo by SpaceX on Pexels.com

If Bigelow or Starship can start operations before Starlab’s 2027 launch that would be nice. Some folks wonder if the ISS will last long enough to see it’s planned retirement party in 2028. The Russians aren’t quite as enthusiastic as NASA about staying with the ISS that long and their components of the station are essential to its operations. They’re planning a polar station and lunar activities with China and have talked of deorbiting their space station modules on the ISS sooner rather than later.

Not only that, they have cut a few corners in the quality control of their spacecraft of late. This latest Soyuz flight containing a one-man film crew and Russian actress Yulia Peresild (playing a medic sent up for an emergency house call) was plagued with problems. After initial issues with their communications system, their autodocking system had issues as well forcing them to have to dock with the station manually. Then on Friday. an engine test wouldn’t shut off on time and temporarily pushed the station out of position.

None of those issues hurt anyone, but combine that with the air leak in 2019 on a Russian spacecraft docked at the station, and another, worse, engine problem that pushed the station over 500 degrees out of position. Cracks have been found in a Russian module on the station, and they had an inflight abort of a crewed Soyuz mission at launch in 2018. The Russians make up for all of these problems with excellent training, which they now plan to shorten. One wonders when a combination of fresh issues occurring at the same time will result in worse consequences and result in the loss of the ISS. As one of the two major partners on the ISS, Russia must participate reliably for the station to survive until 2027 and 20208 when the Nanoracks and Axium stations come online.

The Russians continue to drift further from the West politically and those politics have increasingly impacted our partnership with them in space, with laws on both sides gradually restricting technology exchanges.

NASA’s new Lunar project partners with other countries, but not Russia. They vocally objected to not being given a leading role and chose instead to not participate.

Therefore, I find any effort to build space stations like Starlab that have no reliance on the International Space Station’s survival to be most encouraging assurance of continued progress in space. Go Nanoracks and Lockheed! Ad Astra!

~ by Bill Housley on October 23, 2021.

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