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Blue Origin and Sierra Space unveil plans for commercial space station

Blue Origin and Sierra Space are leading development of a privately-funded space station known as "Orbital Reef" to provide a commercial destination in low-Earth orbit after the International Space Station is retired, officials announced Monday.

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai, Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, said an initial version of the outpost will be flying before 2030. It would be built in partnership with Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering and Arizona State University.

"The International Space Station ... is nearing retirement," he said. "Going forward, the demand for research will continue, and demand from new sectors must grow. The supply will be commercial, not governmental. Now, private investment can test the validity of commercial orbital markets."

An artist's impression of the Orbital Reef space station with a Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser spaceplane docked at one end and a Boeing Starliner capsule berthed at the other. Blue Origin

He said the team believes Orbital Reef will appeal to three broad market segments: governments around the world, both space-faring nations and those without such capabilities; companies seeking research or industrial opportunities in space; and "adventurers, tourists and citizens."

"Orbital reef provides world class technical accommodations, and has a futuristic space architecture with all the features we should have in space: big volumes, big hatches, a sky canopy of huge windows facing Earth, a central thoroughfare between functional modules and a safe, easy way to do excursions outside."

The latter refers to a small one-person spacecraft being developed by Genesis Engineering Solutions that would enable researchers and others to venture outside the station without the need for a spacesuit.

In a video animation, Orbital Reef is shown with large, deployable solar arrays, radiators and linked modules in a long central axis with docking ports on each end and other compartments berthed at 90-degree angles. Sierra Nevada's core module will be 27-feet across.

While the futuristic design might seem a stretch given the end-of-decade timetable, "we're not starting from scratch in terms of technology or capabilities," Sherwood said. "All the fundamental things that need to be known, or need to be understood, have already been demonstrated in one way or another.

"That gives us a big step forward, and it allows much more rapid development. In addition, being privately funded, our ability to control requirements and operate to a baseline in a very schedule aggressive way is much smoother than in typically government funded programs."

The Orbital Reef space station features large Earth-facing bay windows and a small one-person spacecraft, seen here in a frame from an animation, that could be used by passengers to venture outside the lab complex without the need for a spacesuit. Blue Origin

Blue Origin's New Glenn rockets, currently being developed at a sprawling manufacturing facility near the Kennedy Space Center, will be used to launch major modules while Sierra Nevada will provide the core life module and its Dream Chaser winged spaceplane for passenger and cargo transportation.

Boeing, NASA's prime contractor for the International Space Station, will provide Orbital Reef's science module, engineering support and its Starliner astronaut ferry ship while Redwire Space provides deployable solar arrays, microgravity research capabilities and payload operations.

Arizona State University has agreed to lead a consortium of universities providing research guidance and public outreach.

"Orbital Reef will operate as an off-world mixed-use business park, a standard terrestrial real estate practice," Sherwood said. "This business model will expand access, lower costs and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize spaceflight."

John Mulholland, Boeing's International Space Station program manager, said the Orbital Reef will build on the experience gained assembling NASA's space lab.

"The Reef will begin launching later this decade, and it will have some overlap as the ISS continues its operations," he said. "That overlap is critical in meeting NASA's goals of not ending ISS operations until another LEO (low-Earth orbit) platform is operational.

"We've committed to operating and maintaining the Reef along with supplying a science module that will continue to answer fundamental questions that can only be deciphered in microgravity."

Sierra Space President Janet Kavandi, a former space shuttle astronaut, said NASA "has already indicated that they do plan to be an anchor tenant."

"The plan all along was to allow LEO commercialization to happen so that NASA can focus on exploration of the moon and Mars," she said.

Sherwood said Orbital Reef is a private venture and as such, he declined to discuss how much the project might cost other than to say it would be "an order of magnitude" less expensive than the International Space Station.

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