Blue Origin teams up with Sierra Space, Boeing and others on ‘Orbital Reef’ space station project

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Orbital Reef
An artist’s conception shows a Boeing Starliner capsule at the Orbital Reef station. (Orbital Reef Illustration)

Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is joining forces with Colorado-based Sierra Space and a host of other partners, including Boeing, to propose building a space-based “mixed-use business park” called Orbital Reef.

The plan, announced today at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, is among about a dozen proposals being submitted to NASA for a share of development funds under a program that’s aimed at preparing the way for replacing the International Space Station.

If Blue Origin and its partners follow through on the plan, the basic version of Orbital Reef would be in low Earth orbit sometime during the latter half of the 2020s — in time for an orderly transition from ISS operations. That version would include power-generating capability, a core module with picture windows looking down on Earth, an inflatable habitat provided by Sierra Space and a Boeing-built science lab.

Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, Brent Sherwood, told GeekWire that Orbital Reef would cost “at least an order of magnitude less” than the International Space Station. The development cost for the International Space Station is typically estimated at $100 billion, which would imply a cost in the range of $10 billion for Orbital Reef.

Sherwood declined to say how much each of the partners would be willing to pay toward development, but Sierra Space President Janet Kavandi noted that her company has already put $1 billion into the development of a Dream Chaser space plane capable of ferrying crew to and from Orbital Reef. (An uncrewed version of the Dream Chaser is due to start delivering cargo to the International Space Station within the next year or so.)

Other partners in Orbital Reef include Redwire, which specializes in on-orbit manufacturing; Genesis Engineering Solutions, which would build a “single-person spacecraft” for extravehicular activities; and Arizona State University, which will lead a global research consortium.

Sherwood said Orbital Reef could serve as a base for activities ranging from research to manufacturing, media projects and space tourism. Mike Gold, Redwire’s executive vice president for civil space business development and external affairs, emphasized that the proposed station will be designed to be expandable over time.

“Like real reefs, the Orbital Reef will touch many, many countries throughout the world,” Gold said. “This isn’t an American station. This will be a global station that will carry on the proud international legacy of the ISS.”

NASA is due to distribute up to $400 million to as few as two and as many as four industry teams to work on the initial stages of development for new orbital destinations — but it’s not guaranteed that Orbital Reef will be chosen.

Most of the spacecraft that would be used to build and service Orbital Reef — ranging from Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser and Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule to Blue Origin’s orbital-class New Glenn rocket — are still under development and behind schedule.

Even if Orbital Reef is chosen for the first round of funding, there’s no guarantee that it’ll will win full funding from NASA as an anchor tenant in the late 2020s. A different industry team led by Blue Origin found that out earlier this year when it lost out to SpaceX in a competition for lunar lander funding — an award that’s currently the subject of a legal dispute.

Among the other teams proposing space station concepts are Axiom Space and a consortium including Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin. Axiom Space has already won NASA’s go-ahead to build a commercial habitat for the International Space Station that could become part of a new orbital outpost when the time is right.

There’s also a chance that SpaceX could proposed a modified version of its Starship spaceship as an orbital outpost, just as it proposed a Starship lunar lander.

NASA is due to make its initial selections for funding next year.

Would the Orbital Reef partners proceed without NASA funding? Sierra Space’s Kavandi, for one, was clear about that.

“Our company is very dedicated to making this happen, with or without additional funding,” she said. “We have committed to Blue Origin to be principal partners, and we are committed to making this happen regardless.”