Bezos’ Blue Origin unveils private space station ‘business park’ to be deployed later this decade
A rendering of the “Ocean Reef” space station in orbit.
WASHINGTON – Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin on Monday unveiled its plan for a private space station called “Orbital Reef,” which it will build in partnership with multiple space companies and expects to deploy between 2025 and 2030.
Blue Origin describes the Orbital Reef station, which would be habitable for up to 10 people, as a “mixed use business park” in space – as well as capable of “exotic hospitality” for space tourists.
Ocean Reef is designed to have almost as much habitable volume as the International Space Station.
The company’s primary partner for the station is Sierra Space, a subsidiary of aerospace contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation, with the team also including Boeing, Redwire Space, and Genesis Engineering.
“We’re just beginning to understand the tremendous implications that microgravity research, development and manufacturing can mean, for not only for exploring the universe and making discoveries but improving life on Earth,” Redwire executive vice president Mike Gold told CNBC.
Shares of Redwire Space were halted temporarily by the New York Stock Exchange after surging following the announcement. The stock jumped as much as 40% in trading from its previous close of $12.16.
Blue Origin will provide the space station’s “utility systems” and “core modules,” and plans to use its New Glenn rocket to launch Ocean Reef.
Sierra Space is contributing its LIFE habitat (Large Integrated Flexible Environment; essentially an inflatable space station module), and plans to use its Dream Chaser spacecraft to transport cargo and crew to-and-from the station.
Redwire Space, which went public in September, will run the station’s payload operations and build deployable structures. Redwire also plans to use Orbital Reef for microgravity research, development and manufacturing.
Boeing will build Ocean Reef’s science-focused module and run the station’s operations, as well as conduct maintenance engineering. The aerospace giant also plans to utilize its Starliner capsule for transporting crew and cargo to the station.
Genesis Engineering will contribute its “Single Person Spacecraft” system, which the company describes as an alternative to a spacesuit.
In a conference call with reporters, executives representing the companies of the team declined to specify how much each expect to invest in Orbital Reef.
Blue Origin vice president Brent Sherwood said the team is not going to give “a specific number” on how much the Ocean Reef space station will cost, adding that the financial numbers are commercially sensitive.
Bezos’ company has been looking at building a space station for more than a year, as CNBC previously reported, and earlier this month added a number of job postings for its “Orbital Destinations” team.
Bezos’ vision: Living and working in space
Founder, Chairman, CEO and President of Amazon Jeff Bezos gives a thumbs up as he speaks during an event about Blue Origin’s space exploration plans in Washington, U.S., May 9, 2019.
Clodagh Kilcoyne | Reuters
Orbital Reef fits squarely at the center of Bezos’ vision for Blue Origin, which is to get to where “millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth,” especially by moving “industries that stress Earth into space.”
Bezos has personally increased his involvement at Blue Origin, after he stepped down as the CEO of Amazon this summer. While the company has had success with its suborbital New Shepard rocket, having flown two successful crewed flights to date, Blue Origin has come under scrutiny due to soaring employee turnover and allegations of safety issues, as well as a “toxic” work culture, by former employees.
Blue Origin has teamed up with other major space companies before, having partnered with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper to build a crewed lunar lander for NASA’s HLS program.
However, while the Blue Origin-led team won a $579 million award for early development, it lost the following $2.9 billion contract to Elon Musk’s SpaceX earlier this year. Blue Origin has since taken NASA to court, filing a lawsuit against the space agency to reverse the lunar lander award.
Space station race heating up
Blue Origin intends to bid for one of NASA’s expected contracts for the “Commercial LEO Destinations” program, but Bezos’ company is not alone. NASA director of commercial spaceflight, Phil McAlister told CNBC last month that the program “received roughly about a dozen proposals” from a variety of companies for contracts.
With NASA planning to retire the International Space Station by the end of the decade, the CLD program represents an effort to turn to private companies for new space stations – with the space agency expecting to save more than $1 billion annually as a result.
“We are in a second golden age of space exploration and development,” Redwire’s Gold said.
Last week, another private space station was announced by a separate team of companies: Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin are building a station called Starlab, which plans to be operational by 2027.
Starlab is designed to be crewed by up to four astronauts, with about a third of the volume of the ISS.
Concept art of a “Starlab” space station
NASA has already begun funding the ambitions of one company under a separate contract from the CLD program, having awarded Axiom Space with $140 million. Axiom plans to build modules that will connect to the ISS. When the ISS retires, Axiom then would detach its modules and turn it into a free-flying space station.
An illustration of three of the company’s modules connected to the International Space Station.
Axiom has begun manufacturing of those modules, including the enormous windows that will make up an observation deck. The company plans to launch and connect the first habitable module to the ISS by 2024, under the assumption that Congress provides the necessary funding to extend the space station’s life to 2028.