NASA backs Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef space station

Alexa, book me a ticket to low Earth orbit.

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Orbital Reef Station
Blue Origin

Following October's news that Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin spaceflight company planned to build its own commercial space station in low Earth orbit, NASA announced on Thursday it has selected the program for funding through a Space Act Agreement to further develop the the station's design. The funding is part of NASA’s Commercial LEO Development program, which aims to "develop a robust commercial space economy in LEO, including supporting the development of commercially owned and operated LEO destinations." 

Orbital Reef
Blue Origin

“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, Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, said in a prepared statement. The station would be an orbital "mixed-use space business park" that would offer any number of turnkey services as well as reduced operational costs for burgeoning low-g industries "in addition to meeting the ISS partners’ needs." 

Blue Origin is partnering with Sierra Space in this project with the former focusing on the architecture and infrastructure of the station — everything from its design and construction to managing lift logistics using the New Glenn heavy launch system — while the latter is tasked with developing the station's LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment). Boeing is also helping out, designing the operations-maintenance-science module and leveraging its Starliner crew capsule. Genesis Engineering Solutions is involved as well. It's working on a single person spacecraft that tourists and employees alike will be able to putter around in. 

Thursday's announcement, ironically, comes at the end of a year in which Blue Origin protested NASA's “fundamentally unfair” decision to award a lunar lander contract to rival SpaceX to the GAO, which quickly dismissed the claims. Blue Origin then sued NASA — literally, sued NASA —"in an attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA's Human Landing System," a spokesperson for Blue Origin told Engadget in August. The company subsequently lost that suit as well but, hopefully, Thursday's deal will serve as a balm for Bezos' critically wounded ego.

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus space station design is a series of tubes.
Northrop Grumman

The Orbital Reef team hopes to have its first modules in orbit by the end of the decade with further expansions happening throughout the 2030s. But Orbital Reef isn't the only egg in NASA's commercial LEO basket. Northrop Grumman announced on Thursday that it too had signed a Space Act Agreement — to the tune of $126 million — to design a "free flying" space station that will be a permanent presence in LEO for at least 15 years.

"Our station will enable a smooth transition from International Space Station-based LEO missions to sustainable commercial-based missions where NASA does not bear all the costs, but serves as one of many customers,” Steve Krein, Northrop Grumman's vice president of civil and commercial space, said in a statement. The company plans to leverage its existing Cygnus spacecraft, its Mission Extension Vehicle (MEV) and its Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO), as the basis for the station's design. 

As part of its agreement with NASA, these development proposals will have to account for every aspect of the station's "commercialization, operations and capabilities," according to Northrop Grumman, "as well as space station requirements, mission success criteria, risk assessments, key technical and market analysis requirements, and preliminary design activities."

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