Blue Origin has had quite an eventful year. The company has made massive progress with its shuttles, and it has even sent several people to space in the past few months. However, the most significant point for the company this year has been the battle to get to the moon.
With that project looking less likely to happen, Blue Origin has gotten itself on another mission - building a new space station.
Going to Space Regardless
Late in October, Blue Origin announced the Orbital Reef - a private space station that it plans to construct and launch into space in the coming years. The company confirmed that Orbital Reef will be a partnership between it and several other space companies, and a tentative launch date has been set between 2025 and 2030.
As Blue Origin explained in its statement, Orbital Reef will be a commercial space station that will launch and operate in the low Earth orbit area. The space station has been billed as a “mixed-use business park” in space, and it will provide customers with the opportunity to have an address in space. Individuals, businesses, and governments will be able use the facility, with Blue Origin looking to bring a structure that will establish its presence in space once and for all.
The Orbital Reef will offer services like logistics and transport, space living, and equipment storage to support customers and their activities. There will be an onboard crew to cater to customers’ needs, with Blue Origin supporting a large chunk of their operations. As the space station’s market and customer base expand, Blue Origin and its partners will add more amenities and utilities. Eventually, the goal will also expand for Orbital Reef to welcome tourists.
Everyone Will Eventually Be Welcome
At its inception, Blue Origin expects the Orbital Reef station to house as many as ten people. This means that the structure will have a habitable base that is comparable to the International Space Station (ISS).
While Blue Origin will be taking on the chunk of development and maintenance for the facility, the company also expects to partner with others. Its primary partner is Sierra Space - the space-focused subsidiary of Sierra Nevada Corporation - one of America’s largest aerospace contractors. Sierra Space’s Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module will be used to power the Orbital Reef, while its Dream Chaser space plane will also help with crew and cargo movements.
Other partners include Genesis Engineering, Redwire Space, and Boeing. While reports on the other partners’ roles remain unclear, Boeing is said to be engaged in building the space station’s operations, science module, and maintenance engineering.
Speaking on the vision for the Orbital Reef, Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s senior vice president of advanced development programs, said:
“For over sixty years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital space flight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade. We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight. A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”
Endless Opportunities for Blue Origin & Co.
Blue Origin’s timing is definitely looking interesting. The company has fought its biggest rival - SpaceX - for a place on NASA’s human lander system (HLS) contract all year, and it appears that it has lost that battle. SpaceX won the $2.9 billion contract months ago, and all of Blue Origin’s complaints have so far fallen on deaf ears.
So, if NASA won’t let Blue Origin participate in the HLS development, the company will simply build its own space station.
Things are especially dire now, with the ISS itself ready for decommissioning. The agreement between the United States and other countries running the ISS is expected to run out by 2024, marking the end of an era. All parties are in talks to extend the agreement, but many considerations will need to be made for that to happen.
NASA has reportedly been evaluating private space station proposals to keep the ISS functional - or find a replacement. However, this will require a massive financial commitment from the agency. And right now, funds aren’t particularly available. If Blue Origin can create a viable alternative to the ISS, it could leverage the Orbital Reef in more ways than one.
The Orbital Reef could be the catalyst for a more productive relationship between Blue Origin and NASA. Essentially, the company will be better positioned to take contracts from the space agency and displace SpaceX as NASA’s primary private contractor.
At the same time, Blue Origin could use the Orbital Reef as a gambit to get contracts with foreign governments that have aspirations in space. Depending on how things turned out, Blue Origin and its partners could be sitting on a large opportunity here.