Blue Origin Announces the “Orbital Reef,” the Space Station they Plan to Build in Orbit

Blue Origin has definitely upped its game lately! Jeff Bezos, who stepped down as Amazon's CEO in December 2000, has made it his personal mission take the company he started and make it a major player in the commercial space industry. Bezos and his brother Bezos have been open about their long-term vision, despite some highly publicized missions involving the New Shepard, which involved passengers such as Wally Funk and William Shatner.
Bezos refers to this vision as "building a road to Space so our Children can Build the Future".

The station, which is designed to increase access to space, is basically a business park. This shared infrastructure supports many users. Although this concept is not new in space, it has been used for decades as a business model. This is because of the recent growth in the commercial space industry. However, the application of this model to LEO will help foster this growth.

The interior of Orbital Reef. Credit: Orbital reef

This base's baseline configuration consists of multiple science- and habitation modules that can support ten people in an area measuring 830m3 (29.311 feet3) in volume. With an interior volume of 915.6 m3 (32.2333 ft3), this space is nearly as big as the soon to be retired International Space Station (ISS). It includes multiple berths, vehicle ports and utilities to serve multiple customers. There are also large Earth-facing windows that offer visitors a stunning view of Earth from space.

The Orbital Reefs is a leading-edge commercial destination in LEO. Its ultimate goal is to provide the infrastructure necessary to scale economic activity in space and open new markets. The station will combine reusable space transport, smart design and advanced automation to reduce the complexity and cost for both existing space companies and new space arrivals such as commercial space companies and government research institutes.

Blue Origin and Sierra Space are backing the Orbital Reef project. They also support Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Boeing. Blue Origin will provide the core modules, utility systems, and launch services for the New Glenn heavy-launch systems. According to Brent Sherwood (Senior Vice President, Advanced Development Programs at Blue Origin), the company released a press release that was accompanied by the announcement.

NASA and other agencies have been developing orbital space flight and space habitat for over 60 years. This will allow us to launch commercial space flights in the next decade. We will increase access, lower costs, and offer all the amenities and services necessary to normalize space flight. In low Earth orbit, there will be a vibrant business ecosystem that generates new discoveries, new products and global awareness.

From left to right: The Dream Chaser, New Glenn and Starliner are the vehicles that will transport crew and cargo to the Orbital reef. Credit: Orbital Reef/Blue Origin/Boeing

Sierra Nevada, formerly Sierra Nevada, will provide the Large Integrated Flexible Environment module (LIFE), the node module and crew and cargo services with their reusable Dream Chaser spaceplane. Janet Kavandi (ex-Astronaut with NASA, president of Sierra Space) said:

Sierra Space is delighted to be a partner with Blue Origin, providing the Dream Chaser spaceplane and the LIFE module, as well as other space technologies, to expand commercial research, manufacturing and tourism. I've waited for the day when living and working in space was possible as a former NASA astronaut.

Boeing will provide the station's Science module and oversee maintenance engineering, operations, and transportation using their CST100 Starliner crew spacecraft. Redwire Space, an international company based in Jacksonville, Florida will provide deployable structures as well as the components necessary for payload operations and microgravity research, development and manufacturing.

Genesis Engineering Solutions, an aerospace company based in Maryland, will supply the Single Person Spacecraft (SPS). This single-person spacecraft is designed for routine operations as well as tourist excursions. Brand Griffin, Program Manager at Genesis Engineering Solutions, stated that the Single-Person Spacecraft will revolutionize spacewalking. Tourists and space workers alike will be able to access Orbital Reef with safety, comfort, and speed. External operations will be more cost-effective and routine thanks to the shirt-sleeve environment and great visibility.

Artists impression of both the Reef (left), and the single-person spacecraft, (right). Credit: Orbital reef

ASU will, however, continue to rely on its global network of universities for research advisory services and outreach. Lindy Elkins Tanton, Vice President of ASUs Interplanetary Initiatives and Principal Investigator for the NASA Psyche mission, said:

ASUs Interplanetary Initiative is proud to lead the university consortium supporting Orbital Reef. An international group of universities has been brought together to discuss the ethics and guidelines for research. We want to bring all of our knowledge in science, research, and manufacturing in low gravity to aid nations, corporations, and other groups who desire access to Orbital Reef. It's about believing in our future together and bringing engineering and science to bear on a better tomorrow.

The Interplanetary Initiatives includes more than 12 leading academic institutions, each of which has expertise in space and microgravity. This ASU-led initiative forms part of the Orbital Reef University Advisory Council. It will address the needs of academia, encourage research, advise novice researchers and develop standards of conduct.

The Orbital Reef also serves another purpose: to fill in the gap left by the impending retirement the ISS. It is currently approved to continue operations until 2024, with a possibility of extension to 2028. NASA and other agencies have begun to look into potential replacements. NASA's Commercial LEO Destinations project was revealed earlier this year by NASA. The program will award contracts worth $400 million to up to four companies before the end of this year. Major companies such as Blue Origin, Airbus and Boeing have expressed interest.

The International Space Station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Credit: NASA

We find this exciting because it does not replicate the enduring success of the ISS. It is a step beyond that to provide a unique location in low earth orbit, where it can host a variety of companies and non-specialist crews. John Mulholland (Boeing VP and program manager for International Space Station) said. This requires the same expertise that was used to design and build the International Space Station, as well as the same skills that are used every day to maintain, operate and sustain the ISS.

The Orbital Reef isn't the only commercial idea for a LEO space station. Bigelow Aerospace, which has been creating inflatable space modules in recent years, hopes to use them to build a commercial orbital space station. Gateway Foundation is also developing their Voyager Class Station, a rotating pinwheel structure that produces varying levels artificial gravity.

The Gateway Foundation's efforts extend to creating infrastructure in orbit that will facilitate orbital construction. This led to the creation and operation of the Orbital Assembly Corporation. International Space Elevator Consortium, (ISEC), hopes to harness advances in super-materials (particularly single crystal graphene) in order to realize the dream of building an elevator.

Blue Origin has fallen behind SpaceX and other commercial companies in space over the past few years, it is no secret. Bezos decided to concentrate his attention on Blue Origin, his fledging space company. He hopes that this will allow him to become SpaceX's most formidable rival in the new age.

Blue Origin has a video that explains the Orbital Reef concept.

Additional Reading: Blue Origin, Orbital Reef