View of the Ocean Reef space station in orbit.
Blue Origin revealed to Jeff Bezos its plan for a private space station called “Orbital Reef,” which it will build in partnership with several space companies and expects to be deployed between 2025 and 2030.
Blue Origin describes the Orbital Reef station, which can be habitable for up to 10 people, as a “mixed-use business complex” in space — as well as capable of “exotic hospitality” for space tourists.
Ocean Reef is designed to have a habitable size roughly the same as the International Space Station.
The company’s principal partner for the station is Sierra Space, a subsidiary of aerospace contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation, with the team also including Boeing, Redwire Space and Genesis Engineering.
“We are just beginning to understand the enormous implications that microgravity research, development, and industrialization can have, not just for exploring the universe and making discoveries but for improving life on Earth,” Redwire executive vice president Mike Gold told CNBC.
Blue Origin will provide “facility systems” and “base units” to the space station, and plans to use a New Glenn rocket to launch Ocean Reef.
Sierra Space contributes to its home LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment; essentially inflatable space station unit), and plans to use its Dream Chaser spacecraft to transport cargo and crew to and from the station.
Redwire Space, which went public in September, will manage the terminal’s payload operations and build deployable structures. Redwire also plans to use Orbital Reef in research, development and manufacturing in microgravity.
Boeing will build the science-focused Ocean Reef unit and manage the station’s operations, as well as perform maintenance engineering. The airline giant also plans to use its Starliner capsule to carry crew and cargo to the station.
Genesis Engineering will contribute the “one-person spacecraft” system, which the company describes as an alternative to the spacesuit.
Bezos has been looking to build a space station for more than a year, CNBC previously reported, and earlier this month it added a number of announced jobs to its “Orbital Destinations” team.
Bezos’ vision: live and work in space
Founder, Chairman, CEO, CEO and President of Amazon Jeff Bezos gives his thumbs up as he speaks during an event about Blue Origin’s space exploration plans in Washington, US, May 9, 2019.
Claudagh Killcoin | Reuters
Orbital Reef fits squarely at the center of Bezos’ vision for Blue Origin, which is to get to where “millions of people live and work in space to benefit Earth,” particularly by moving “industry stressing Earth into space.”
Bezos personally increased his involvement with Blue Origin, after stepping down as Amazon CEO this summer. While the company has had a successful New Shepard suborbital rocket launch, having made two successful crewed flights to date, Blue Origin has come under scrutiny for high employee turnover and allegations of safety issues, as well as a “toxic” work culture, by former employees. .
Blue Origin has collaborated with other major space companies before, having partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s HLS program.
However, while the team led by Blue Origin won a $579 million prize for early development, it lost the next $2.9 billion contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX earlier this year. Since then, Blue Origin has sued NASA, suing the space agency to revoke the lunar probe award.
Space station race heating
Blue Origin plans to bid for one of NASA’s anticipated contracts for its “Commercial LEO Destinations” program, but Bezos isn’t alone. NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight, Phil McAllister, told CNBC last month that the program had “received nearly a dozen proposals” from a variety of companies for contracts.
With NASA planning to retire from the International Space Station by the end of the decade, the CLD program represents an effort to go out to private companies for new space stations — the space agency expects to save more than $1 billion annually as a result.
“We are in the second golden age of space exploration and development,” Gould said on Redwire.
Last week, another private space station was announced by a separate team of companies: Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin are building a station called Starlab, which they plan to start operating by 2027.
Starlab is designed to hold up to four astronauts, with about a third the size of the International Space Station.
Concept art for the space station “Starlab”
NASA has already begun to fund one company’s ambitions under a separate contract from the CLD program, after awarding Axiom Space Corporation $140 million. Axiom plans to build modules that will connect to the International Space Station. When the ISS retires, Axiom will then detach its modules and convert it into a free-to-fly space station.
Illustration of three of the company’s modules attached to the International Space Station.