Blue Origin unveils plans to build a private space station called Orbital Reef by 2030

Private successors may be available to the International Space Station.
Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Space, along with other partners, announced today (Oct. 25,) that they will build an off-Earth commercial outpost called Orbital reef, which is expected to be operational by the end of 2020.

Project team members stated that Orbital Reef has a number of potential customers, including national governments, space tourists and private industry. Initially, the outpost will complement the International Space Station (ISS) but will eventually take over the baton. The ISS is expected to retire in 2028-2030.

Related: NASA wants private space stations to get off the ground

"NASA and other space agencies have been developing orbital spaceflight and habitation for over 60 years," Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin's senior vice president for advanced development programs, stated in a statement.

He said, "We will increase access, lower costs, and provide all services and amenities necessary to normalize spaceflight." "A vibrant business environment will develop in low Earth orbit, creating new discoveries, new products and increasing global awareness.

Today's announcement comes four days after Nanoracks and Voyager Space, Lockheed Martin, unveiled plans to build their own station called Starlab. Houston-based AxiomSpace had previously stated its intention to launch modules from Houston to the ISS in 2024 and then detach them to operate them as a commercial space station.

Image 1 of 7. Blue Origin, Sierra Space, Boeing, and other companies have teamed up to build Orbital Reef. This private space station will be flying by 2020. (Image Credit: Blue Origin). Image 2 of 7. (Image Credit: Blue Origin). Image 3 of 7. (Image Credit: Blue Origin). Image 4 of 7. (Image Credit: Blue Origin). Image 5 of 7. (Image credits: Blue Origin). Image 6 of 7, (Image crédit: Blue Origin). Image 7 of 7. (Imagecredit: Blue Origin).

Meet Oral Reef

Orbital Reef is a collaboration between some big names in the space industry. Blue Origin, Jeff Bezos' space company, will supply some modules. The primary launcher for getting station hardware into space will be its New Glenn heavy lift rocket. It is expected to lift off in the latter part of 2022.

Boeing, a key partner in ISS, will manage Orbital Reef operations, maintenance, and repair. Boeing will provide science modules and the Starliner capsule that will transport people and cargo to the Outpost will be used. Boeing is currently preparing for a critical uncrewed test flight to orbital lab in 2022.

Orbital Reef will use Sierra Space's large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE), modules that can be expanded by Sierra Space. Representatives from the company said that Dream Chaser's spaceplan will be available for cargo and crew delivery.

The Starliner spacecraft of Boeing, seen here on top of an Atlas V rocket, is awaiting the OFT-2 uncrewed flight for NASA. This will transport the Orbital Reef space station. (Image credit: Boeing)

Redwire Space will supply the solar arrays, as well as other deployable structures. Redwire Space, whose subsidiary Made In Space sent several 3D printers to orbit, will also be providing payload operations, support research, and manufacturing work.

Genesis Engineering Solutions will provide a single-person spacecraft that will enable Orbital Reef visitors and crew to make spacewalks from the outpost. Arizona State University will be leading a group of 14 universities that offer research advice and outreach to the public.

Orbital Reef will be operational by the end of 2020 in a base configuration that includes a power system and core module. It also has a Genesis spacecraft and a science module. Sherwood stated that the initial outpost will have a pressurized volume of 29,311 cubic feet (830 meters) and can support up to 10 people. Sherwood spoke at an international Astronautical Conference in Dubai today.

The ISS is comparable to a Boeing 747 jet's 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubes m) in volume. Starlab, which will be home to four people, will have a habitat module that holds 12,000 cubic feet (340 cube m) of volume.

Orbital Reef will continue to grow, and many more modules will be added if everything goes according to plan. The project team wants it to be able to serve many customers across the globe.

Redwire's executive vice president for civil and international affairs, Mike Gold, stated today that the Orbital reef will be a real coral reef. This is not an American station. This station will be a global one that will continue the proud international legacy left by the ISS.

Related: How will the International Space Station die

Artist's illustration of an Orbital Reef Station with visiting vehicles. Blue Origin, image credit

NASA seeks private successors to the ISS

NASA aims encourage the development and operation of Orbital Reef and Starlab stations via Commercial LEO Destinations, a program that focuses on NASA's success in getting private cargo and crew to the ISS.

In a CLD update, agency officials stated that NASA would pursue multiple Space Act Agreements to fund early concept development of commercial destinations in the first phase. NASA plans to acquire destination services in the second phase when they become available.

Orbital Reef team members are hopeful of securing some NASA funding in the future, but they don't plan to wait around.

Sherwood stated today that "you can't start in 20 years and have a station operational so you have overlap in operational capability prior to the ISS being retired," during today's press conference. He pointed out that the funding for Phase 1 of CLD is "small", and Phase 2 funding won't likely be available until the middle 2020s.

Orbital Reef's partner companies are investing a lot of their own funds in the project. Sherwood did not provide a cost estimate, but he said it would be "at most an order of magnitude lower" than the ISS' approximately $100 billion price tag.

Mike Wall is the author and illustrator of "Out There" by Grand Central Publishing (2018). This book is about the search for alien life. Follow him @michaeldwall. Follow us on Facebook @Spacedotcom and Twitter @michaeldwall