Blue Origin, Boeing and other ventures lay out ideas for commercial space stations

An artist’s conception shows Blue Origin’s concept for an Earth-orbiting space station. (Blue Origin / NASA Illustration)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has laid out a plan for building a commercial habitat for future space travelers and sending it into Earth orbit atop its New Glenn rocket.

The concept is one of a dozen studies that NASA released today as part of a project to assess how crewed space operations in low Earth orbit, or LEO, could be commercialized within the next six years or so.

NASA commissioned the studies last summer to investigate commercial alternatives to the International Space Station, in line with the current plan to move away from government management and operation of the space station’s U.S. segment by 2025. Each of the 13 teams was tasked with providing a study at a cost of no more than $1 million, with the total price tag adding up to an estimated $11 million..

In addition to Blue Origin’s concept presentation, NASA released study summaries from Axiom Space, Boeing, Deloitte Consulting, KBRwyle, Lockheed Martin, McKinsey Co., NanoRacks, Northrop Grumman, Sierra Nevada Corp., Space Adventures and Space Systems/Loral (now part of Maxar Technologies). Bigelow Aerospace was also on NASA’s original list to do a study, but didn’t come in for a mention today.

There’s no guarantee that any of these companies will actually follow through on the plans they’ve laid out. The studies were merely meant to furnish NASA with options for supporting the development of a commercial ecosystem in LEO.

By the mid-2020s, NASA’s focus is expected to shift to a mini-space station in lunar orbit, known as the Gateway. But in today’s news release, the space agency said it expects to be a key customer for private space ventures in low Earth orbit.

“NASA will continue to need low-Earth orbit for microgravity research and testing that will enable the success of the agency’s plans to go forward to the Moon and Mars, including landing the first woman and next man on the moon,” NASA explained. “Providing expanded opportunities for commercial activities at the space station could help catalyze and expand markets, enabling a robust economy in space for many businesses. The agency’s ultimate goal in low Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a robust ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities, at a much lower cost than today.”

Some of the companies (such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin) have previously shared ideas for building commercial space stations, and other companies (such as Deloitte and McKinsey) focused on space-station economics rather than specific hardware concepts. But today’s presentation from Blue Origin covered new ground.

So far, the Kent, Wash.-based company has concentrated on suborbital space launches with its New Shepard spaceship, development of next-generation rocket engines such as the BE-4, orbital launch capability with its yet-to-be-built New Glenn rocket, and its Blue Moon concept for a lunar lander.

Blue Origin said its team for LEO commercialization would also include Texas-based Johnson Nanoventures, which would contribute to the development of habitat architecture and in-space operations; plus Virginia-based Bryce Space and Technology, which would do market research.

The market assessment would dictate the details relating to a future space station’s technical requirements, Blue Origin said. The company would then develop a habitat making use of commercially available hardware as well as its own manufacturing capabilities. Once the basic architectural concept has been set, it could take as little as three years to launch the space station, based on the study’s timeline.

Blue Origin’s concept illustration shows a habitat with portholes, mounted atop the New Glenn’s upper stage. An airlock is docked to the habitat, and a power-generating module equipped with solar panels is docked to the airlock’s other side.

For what it’s worth, the power-generating module looks a lot like the Power and Propulsion Element, or PPE, that NASA has asked Maxar Technologies to manufacture for the Gateway. Maxar has listed Blue Origin as one of its partners in the PPE development effort.

We’ve asked Blue Origin for further details, and will update this report with anything we hear back.

Here’s a rundown of the other 11 concept summaries:

  • Axiom Space: Provide commercial astronauts with opportunities to fly to the International Space Station in the 2020-2023 time period, launch Axiom modules to the space station beginning in 2023, gradually transfer hardware to Axiom modules, separate modules from ISS at the end of its operating life to create a standalone Axiom Station. Subcontractors would include TASI, KBRwyle and Intuitive Machines.
  • Boeing: The prime contractor for the International Space Station envisions continued evolution of the ISS. The initial stage would involve attachment of commercial modules, followed by the launch of crew-tended, free-flying space elements, followed by the assembly of multi-element platforms. Boeing HorizonX would take a role in commercialization, and partners may include Virgin Galactic, Space Adventures, Made In Space, Airbus, NanoRacks and Alpha Space.
  • Deloitte: The consulting firm conducted a partial study of the market for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit. By the mid-2020s, it estimates annual demand could amount to $71 million to $1.4 billion for research in life sciences, $442 million to $3.1 billion for space tourism, $71 million to $400 million for in-space manufacturing and $37 million to $1.1 billion for media, advertising and entertainment.
  • KBRwyle: The firm’s study foresees a gradual transition to commercial operations in low Earth orbit. Contractors would make plans for a new LEO platform in the 2020-2025 time frame, start launching elements for in-orbit assembly in 2025 and complete assembly by around 2030. Meanwhile, NASA would end direct ISS funding in 2025 and become a customer of commercial operators in LEO. The transition from the ISS to the LEO platform would be complete in the 2030s, opening the way for decommissioning the ISS.
  • Lockheed Martin: The ISS would evolve to accommodate commercial operations, in preparation for the creation of a new LEO platform in the 2020s that focuses on in-space assembly and manufacturing. Partners include Deep Space Systems, Lunar Resources and Made In Space. Potential technologies include optical-fiber manufacturing and in-space vacuum deposition.
  • McKinsey Co.: The firm’s study anticipates that tourism and astronaut activities will be the largest drivers of demand for space habitats. In the 2025 time frame, total expected demand would be served by a single ISS-style module with a six-person capacity. There’s the potential for a supply-demand mismatch, with “too many modules, not enough occupants, or vice versa.”
  • NanoRacks: The Texas-based company proposes its concept for retrofitting rocket upper stages in orbit to serve as either crewed or uncrewed outposts. NanoRacks says the first uncrewed outpost could go operational by the end of 2022, with the first crewed outpost entering service soon afterward. Potential partners include United Launch Alliance, Stratolaunch, Space-BD, Olis Robotics, Bradford Space (formerly Deep Space Industries), KSAT, Altius, TVA, Space Adventures, Made In Space and Lunar Resources.
  • Northrop Grumman: A long-duration version of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus space capsule could host commercial payloads as an attached or free-flying module. The company’s Augmentation Module could serve as the basis for a free-flying LEO platform by the mid-2020s. Subcontractors for the study included SpaceWorks, Engility and Alpha Space. Northrop Grumman said it also supported Blue Origin and Space Adventures in concept studies that made use of Cygnus and Cygnus-derived vehicles.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp.: The company’s Dream Chaser space plane could be used for transport services, and it could provide a LEO platform for long-duration activities in the early to mid-2020s. Key partners would include Lockheed Martin, Aerojet Rocketdyne, L3, Draper, ASI, MDA and ILC Dover.
  • Space Adventures: Best-known for arranging trips to the ISS on Russian spacecraft, Space Adventures envisions a transition in the 2020s that starts with attaching repurposed Cygnus capsules and other modules to the ISS for commercial applications, including space tourism and media projects, in-space manufacturing, satellite services, and government-backed research and crew training. Partners include Made In Space, NanoRacks and Radiant Solutions.
  • Maxar Technologies (formerly SSL): On-orbit satellite fabrication could be a key driver of commercial LEO operations. The elements of a LEO satellite manufacturing platform could be developed initially as add-ons for the ISS, leading to the creation of a new LEO manufacturing platform. Eventually, the platform could serve as a base of operations for satellite servicing. Partners in the study included Telesat as well as Bryce Space and Technology.

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