And Now Another Space Station

Earlier this week, Blue Origin announced plans for a space station almost the size of the current, government owned International Space Station (ISS). They will call it “Orbital Reef” and intend it to serve as a multi-company business park in space. Its components will be built by Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Boeing and it’ll be operated and partially funded by Redwire Space. It’ll be staffed and supplied by both Sierra Nevada’s “Dream Chaser” space plane and Boeing’s Starliner (CST-100) capsule.

Genesis Engineering will provide space suits…which is a much bigger thing than it sounds, each one being essentially single-person spacecraft.

Orbital Reef joins Nanorack’s “Starlab” and the Axios station as the first three announced commercial space station projects racing to replace the aging ISS. NASA has already announced their interest in helping to fund and crew such efforts.

A three-way competition…that’s what I like to see.

Blue Origin

As the reader no doubt already knows, Jeff Bezos founded, a company that started out selling books…trashing and then dominating that industry before expanding into just about every retail consumer product. When his company went public (started selling publicly traded ownership stock) he became the richest man in the world, and like Elon Musk, uses his wealth to develop space technology. He named his space industry company Blue Origin, hired engineers, and began building his first rocket. That reusable rocket, New Shepard, took way too long to develop and test but is now finally flying short trips into space for any person or organization that can afford the mid-six digit per seat price tag. The pent up demand for these suborbital flight services is driven by much more than just rich guys seeking joy rides and an arguable “astronaut” label however. NASA and other government space agencies and militaries want to use these flights for science and training. Reservations for both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for these kinds of missions are backed up for years.

Blue Origin also contributes to the orbiting space provider market…promoting reusability in an industry of traditionally throw away hardware, selling rocket engines, and participating in various ways with other companies on orbital space development efforts. Blue Origin also bids on NASA projects as an orbital launcher and deep space provider in an attempt to partner with them like other space industry providers do.

Jeff Bezos, as one of the leading business geniuses of our time, only needs a foothold in an industry before using that start to change the world.

Boeing Space Systems

Boeing Space holds the lead as the largest and most influential and prolific spacecraft manufacturer of the world. I know, you may have thought that was NASA, but NASA doesn’t build spacecraft. NASA has always paid Boeing and Lockheed Martin and others to build their spacecraft. When Boeing won one of the Commercial Crew contracts to develop a spacecraft to shuttle astronauts to and from the International Space Station, many expected them to be more expensive than SpaceX and slower than SpaceX, as well as whinier and more arrogant than SpaceX and that they would live in the past for a while and rely far too much on congressional lobbying…hoping all the while that this whole new fixed-price contracting thing would turn out to be just a fad. Boeing didn’t disappoint on any of those expectations…behaving (or rather misbehaving) exactly as predicted. However, no one expected they would fail so spectacularly to produce a working spacecraft. Their Starliner crew capsule ran into problems on it’s first test flight, that resulted in it not being capable of reaching the ISS. Then, when on the pad all ready to launch for their second attempt, had to be removed from the pad, disconnected from their Atlas V launcher (a very expensive rocket) and sent back to the factory with a crippling stuck valve problem. Historically, Boeing has been a phenomenal leader in Old Space, but in New Space they really need to do a whole lot better. Apparently, they’ve relied too much on NASA over the years for several things that truly commercial space companies need to own for themselves. As far as their CST-100 Starliner crew capsule goes, it will finally start flying crew to the ISS for NASA sometime next year, but Boeing will likely not make any money that way, at least not under that contract, because of the problems that they had in development. It’ll be a good spacecraft in the end, though they must find other uses for it outside of NASA or else the whole effort will probably be a financial loss for them. They need a win badly, which means that they need to dive into the new Commercial Space industry as a leader and not just dip their toe in. Their partnership in this project demonstrates that they get that and they’ll bring great experience and deep pockets to the Orbital Reef.

Sierra Nevada Corporation

This company’s Dream Chaser space plane lost the Commercial Crew contract competition to SpaceX and Boeing when Congress insisted that the field be narrowed to just two providers. Congress actually wanted to down-select to only one provider…Boeing. Yeah. Boeing won over Sierra partly because of their political power and partly because of a perceived lead in development that may or may not have been real. Sierra Nevada Corporation vowed to continue forward even without NASA money and has since been working with other commercial space development projects. Space planes, though cool, are very ambitious approaches to spaceflight. On Dream Chaser all that extra weight of the wings and the structural elements that support them serve a purpose for literally only a few minutes at the end of the flight and the rest of the time they get in the way. However, a spaceplane provides a gentler landing, with far more versatile landing options, than any capsule. Engineering and building around the challenges cost such projects much more time and money but I think make a better product and advance humanity better than a simple tried and true capsule design like the SpaceX Dragon. Outside of that, Sierra Nevada also builds many great spacecraft for other companies, has participated in hundreds of space missions, and deserves to fly with the big guys. Lots of folks will be glad to see Dream Chaser participate in Orbital Reef.

Redwire Space

An aggressive young space infrastructure acquisitions company, this firm oozes with get-‘er-done. I hope they’re the ones doing the project planning for this project and not tired old Boeing and “stuck in first-gear” Blue Origin…whos taken 20 years to develop their suborbital flight system, New Shepard. This huge Orbital Reef project badly needs Redwire to keep it moving forward on schedule so that it can get a foot in the door ahead of Axios, Nanoracks, and SpaceX who have smaller, simpler projects and a little bit of a head start.

Genesis Engineering Group

I literally know nothing about this company except that they make classy buildings and stuff, a great asset to have with all the stuffed-shirt engineers in these space companies. No doubt that’s part of why they’re involved, to focus the design on the commercial need for luxury accommodations. However, their advertised contribution to Orbital Reef is a much more critical component for commercial space in general…a space suit. NASA has their old Space Shuttle suits that have been showing their age and are few in number and sizes, and their new space suit project has become seriously delayed. If Genesis builds a good one fast then they will give Orbital Reef a huge competitive advantage, as well as become a leader themselves in a crucial part of a growing industry.

Conceptual images of occupants in the core module of Orbital Reef with Earth in the background

Can this conglomerate get along and work together long enough to build a competitive space station fast enough to compete with Axium Space, SpaceX Starship, and Nanoracks? If all goes according to plan, they intend to start orbiting modules by 2025, a very aggressive timeline. Most of the companies on their team probably have the technical ability to build a space station on their own, but none of them alone has the means to build one this big this fast. Throwing all these folks together could ensure that each of them has the support they need with some redundancy in case one or more of them drops out or falls short along the way. Blue Origin and Boeing don’t have a reputation for doing anything quickly, but the aggressive new startups they’ve joined hands with here might just light a fire under them. CST-100 and Dreamchaser will both provide launch redundancy for crew and supplies, which is also good once the station begins operating, but they both need to start making flights and money soon.

If Orbital Reef succeeds in keeping to it’s announced 2025-2030 timeline, it might have enough modules in place to be ready to jump in just in case the International Space Station folds early for some reason. If they choose the right orbit for it, then maybe some modules from the ISS could move over to Orbital Reef and not have to be deorbited if the Russians decide to end their involvement in the ISS early. Even if the ISS operates through 2028 like NASA wants, the growing Orbital Reef station could provide an ongoing second destination for NASA and other customers to send people, experiments, and spacecraft before Axios or Nanoracks are ready. This could work out best all around.

The only real wrinkle I see is Blue Origin’s intent to be the heavy lift provider for this project, sending the various big pieces of Orbital Reef to orbit with New Glenn, a rocket that as far as the public has seen mostly only exists in drawings and artwork and won’t fly for the first time until late 2022. Paper rockets never put anything into orbit and they’ll need time to make the rocket reliable. It’ll be epic if they can develop, test, get rolling on full production and prove out New Glenn in time to safely start flying the various parts of Orbital Reef by 2025…only three to four years hence. Will they be ready and available to fly Orbital Reef segments as they become available, or will New Glenn rockets become the long pole in the tent, forcing the other partners to shop elsewhere to loft their modules on time? In fact, of all of the three space station efforts by Axios, Nanoracks, and Blue Origin, only Axios seems to already have a business relationship and launch plan in place with the only cheap and functioning launcher…the SpaceX Falcon 9.

The Axios plan might rely too much on the continued availability of the ISS though, and though the Nanoracks “Starlab” has the advantage of simplicity and independence, it seems to be the most poorly funded of the three. Who knows how, when, or even if Bigelow Aerospace will jump in.

Orbital Reef plans to be bigger, stronger, and better funded than any of these other possibilities…but they’ll need to develop as aggressively as SpaceX to get their foot in the door as a full replacement for the ISS, or else they’ll arrive late to the party. I wonder if anything smaller than Orbital Reef would even be large enough to support the overhead costs of operating a space station, but time is money and paying customers would be their best funding in the end.

~ by Bill Housley on October 30, 2021.

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