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Saturday, 6 November 2021

Can Blue Origin help replace the International Space Station?


Blue Origin, the space-flight firm owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is planning to build a space station – with the hopes that it could replace the International Space Station (ISS), which is reaching the end of its life.

The Orbital Reef space station, which Blue Origin is developing in partnership with other space firms including Sierra Space and Boeing, is intended to be a multipurpose destination in orbit, where different companies and governments could pay to send their own astronauts and experiments, and space tourists could visit, says the firm. The station is proposed to be slightly smaller than the ISS, with capacity to house 10 astronauts – the ISS generally carries seven crew members, but it has had as many as 13 at a time.

“We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight,” said Blue Origin’s Brent Sherwood in a statement. “A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”

So would the private station be a viable replacement for the ISS? The ageing station, which is a partnership between the US, Russia and other nations, is only funded until 2024, with a 2028 extension looking probable, but it cannot last forever.

Blue Origin says its space station will be fully operational in the late 2020s, but deadline slippage is common when it comes to huge space-related projects like this one. “They can dream of being fully operational in the late 2020s, but in the space sector they often aim for aspirational targets and if they miss it by a year or two or three then they at least have something they’re aiming for until then,” says space analyst Laura Forczyk. “It’s almost inevitable that things take longer and are more expensive than planned.”

Blue Origin and its set of commercial partners aren’t the only companies with space station ambitions – Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their plans on 21 September for a smaller station called Starlab that could host up to four astronauts, and Axiom also has a station under development. Still, it is unclear if any of these will be ready in time, meaning the late 2020s could see a period in which China’s space station will be the only human habitat in orbit, although the country has promised to let other nations use its station.

“I am alarmed by what I see as the potential for a gap [in the US orbital presence],” said Axiom executive Mary Lynne Dittmar in a Congressional hearing on 21 October. Because of US legislation preventing cooperation between NASA and China, if there is a gap, it will ground NASA astronauts and make it difficult to test crucial technologies for the agency’s other space missions, including the Artemis programme to send humans back to the moon.

NASA hasn’t awarded any funding to Blue Origin or Nanoracks – Axiom has a contract to attach a module to the ISS as part of its station’s development – so the businesses themselves are putting up the money for now. That is a double-edged sword, because a lack of government investment could introduce delays, but also shows that the commercial sector is keen to push ahead.

“These two new concepts are not only serious concepts with serious partnerships, they’re also contributing their own internal funds,” says Forczyk, “That signals that they’re serious about this, that they’re not just waiting for NASA to provide funds – when a company gets serious about something, that’s when they put in their own money.”

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