The Age of the Private Space Station Is Upon Us

14 minute read

It was all smiles and thumbs-up on March 30, at 5:28 PM local time, when NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei and Russian cosmonauts Anton Shkaplerov and Pyotr Dubrov thumped down in the steppes of Kazakhstan aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft—and with good reason. For one thing, Vande Hei had just completed a marathon 355 consecutive days aboard the International Space Station (ISS), setting a new U.S. space endurance record. For another—more important—thing, the joint U.S.-Russian return to Earth was one of the rare exercises in cooperation between the two nations during the white-hot tension between Washington and Moscow over the war in Ukraine.

From its inception more than a generation ago, the ISS—which was built and is maintained by 15 nations, led by the U.S. and Russia—was always intended to be an exercise in peaceable relations between two nations that fought a decades-long Cold War. “Up in space, we can have a cooperation with our Russian friends, our colleagues,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a press statement after Russia’s expanded invasion of Ukraine began and before the crew’s return. “The professional relationship between astronauts and cosmonauts, it hasn’t missed a beat. This is the cooperation we have going on in the civilian space program.”

But what war can not break, time and age can. The $150 billion ISS—as big as a football field and made of 16 pressurized modules and a pair of massive solar wings—is getting old. Its first component, the Russian Zarya (Dawn) module, was launched nearly 24 years ago, and orbital hardware can last only so long before equipment breaks down, small air leaks appear, and the constant punishment both by micrometeorites and the continual thermal cycling the station goes through on every 90-minute orbit—from 121 degrees C (250 degrees F) on the sunlit side of the Earth and -157 degrees C (-250 degrees F) on the nighttime side—take their own toll. NASA and the ISS partners had originally intended to keep the station in service only until 2025, when it would be sent on an incineration plunge through the atmosphere and into the ocean. In December, the Biden Administration extended its life to 2030—provided the hardware can last that long. But whatever its exact end date is, the station is on the clock.

On Dec. 2, 2021, NASA made it clear that when that clock does toll, the U.S. will be getting out of the space station game, likely for good. Instead, the space agency signed a $415.6 million seed money deal with three companies—Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman—to develop their own private space stations, on which NASA and other customers could lease space for professional crews and tourists. The arrangement is similar to the one NASA struck in 2014 with SpaceX and Boeing after the space shuttles retired, contracting with both companies to develop crew vehicles to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit. SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle has already gone into service ferrying crews to the ISS, and while Boeing is still struggling with technical issues and has yet to fly a crew, it is scheduled to make an uncrewed test flight to the ISS in May.

“Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver [astronauts] to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities,” Nelson said in a press statement when the space station contracts were announced. “With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work.”

Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman aren’t alone. NASA previously inked a deal with Houston-based Axiom Space under which the company will launch up to four modules to dock with the ISS, which will later decouple and become their own free-flying space station before the ISS is de-orbited and retired. The first module is set to launch in September 2024, with the other three following at nine-month intervals. Add the other three companies now under NASA contract, and there could be at least four private space stations orbiting Earth before the end of the decade.

“I believe it’s a $1 trillion industry, especially when you start manufacturing things in space,” says Matt Ondler, Axiom’s chief technology officer. “We’re certainly seeing interest in the private astronaut market. And we’re really seeing a lot of interest in countries flying astronauts whom they can’t currently fly because they’re not part of the ISS.”

But not everyone agrees there’s a commercial ecosystem that could profitably support even the one space station we’ve got, never mind four private ones. Much is made about the biopharmaceuticals research that can be done in zero-g, particularly the manufacturing of protein crystals that can aid in drug development. And there is also talk of 3-D printing human tissue and even organs in a space environment that can’t be made as reliably under the pull of Earth’s gravity. However, even Ondler is vague about what else the private stations might produce. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, we’re going to be be surrounded by objects that we can’t imagine how we live without, that were manufactured in space,” he says.

That’s a problem—overpromising and potentially underdelivering—and one that has beset the ISS too. “I think that the International Space Station was sold on the promise that there were billions of dollars to be made in the results from research conducted aboard,” says John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “We’ve now tested that hypothesis and after 20 years, there’s not been any validation. I think it’s a niche industry.”

NASA, obliquely, seems to agree. It does not put a dollar figure on what the ISS has kicked back into the U.S. economy, instead speaking of the 2,500 R&D experiments run aboard the station and the 2,100 related scientific papers that have been produced. To the extent that the space agency does generate revenue, it is mostly in the 312,000 jobs it supports and the $7 billion in local, state and federal taxes it produces.

But whether the private space stations will show the same iffy balance sheet or not, the plans are being drawn, the metal is being cut and the age of the commercial stations—at least to hear the industry tell it—is here. It is very much to be determined if that vision translates into reality.

The New Fleet

The name you give a spacecraft doesn’t really mean a thing. If it flies, it flies—that’s all that matters. That said, the folks at Blue Origin take no small amount of pride in the lyrical name they’ve given their planned space station: Orbital Reef.

“I actually don’t know which member of the team suggested it,” says Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin’s director of advanced development programs. “But I have promoted a philosophy in my team about partnering that I call building a coral reef, meaning that aerospace ultimately needs to be an ecosystem with a lot of species that interact in different ways, just like a coral reef. “

Wherever the name came from, the hardware the team envisions building is impressive. Orbital Reef, which the company hopes to launch in the second half of this decade, would consist of three modules compared to the ISS’ 16. However, each module would be bigger than those on the current station—so much so that combined, they would provide 830 cubic meters (29,000 cubic ft.) of habitable space. That’s equivalent to the volume of a Boeing 777 cargo plane, or 91% of the total interior volume of the ISS. The core module would be what Sherwood calls “Main Street”—a windowed atrium measuring 10.5 m (34.5 ft) long and 5.8 m (19 ft) in diameter. Off to one side would be a smaller “life module,” which would serve as the crew’s living quarters. To the other side is the laboratory module.

“That’s the initial architecture,” Sherwood says. “By zoning functions, we don’t have to live in our laboratory. We go to work in the laboratory but we live in the dormitory.” As the market develops—if the market develops—the company could add more modules to accommodate more customers.

How Blue Origin would launch its modules remains an open question. The company’s New Shepard rocket has been launched on 20 suborbital missions, four of them crewed. But New Shepard is not designed to lift heavy cargo to orbit. For that, the company will have to rely on its still-in-development New Glenn rocket. Blue Origin has been secretive about its progress on New Glenn; Sherwood says only that there will be “more date specificity” later this year.

Northrop Grumman's space station is based partly on hardware that's already flying.Northrop Grumman artist's conception

Impressive as the plans for Orbital Reef sound, the folks at Northrop Grumman believe they have an edge on Blue Origin—and the fact is, they do. As part of NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon in this decade, the agency is planning to build what it calls Gateway, a mini-space station orbiting the moon that would serve as a way station for astronauts descending to or returning from the lunar surface. Northrop Grumman has been selected to build the core module of the Gateway—known as Halo—and construction is already underway. “Hardware is already being cut, the structure is being fabricated at this point,” says Rick Mastracchio, Northrop’s director of business development.

That matters for the company’s Earth-orbit space station plans, because the core module of that structure would essentially be a stretched version of the Halo module. What’s more, Northrop Grumman is already a key service provider for the ISS, periodically launching station-bound cargo aboard its uncrewed Cygnus spacecraft. A pair of modified, stretch Cygnuses would make up the other modules of its low-Earth orbit station, which, like Blue Origin’s Orbital reef, would have expansion ports. The initial plan for the Northrop Grumman station features less habitable volume than Orbital Reef, but there would still be enough space for astronauts to live relatively comfortably.

“I would say each of the Cygnuses is the size of a school bus. And then the main element itself is probably like two school buses. So you can have almost four school buses worth of volume for people to live,” says Mastracchio. That may not be the equivalent of a 777, but again, there’s the advantage that the hardware, in some form, already exists.

Nanoracks is not nearly so far along—but what it lacks in actual hardware, it makes up in simplicity. The company has dubbed its station Starlab and its central laboratory module the George Washington Carver Science Park, and envisions the entire structure as 340 cubic meters in volume (12,000 cu. ft.). That’s decidedly smaller than what Blue Origin is planning, but it’s faster out of the gate, because Nanoracks wants its station to be habitable after just a single launch of a single module.

“We’re not trying to build a Taj Mahal in space,” says Nanoracks board chairman Jeffrey Manber, who’s aiming for a late 2027 launch. “We want something that’s sustainable, that’s frugal, yet exciting.”

Like the other two stations, Nanoracks’ would be expandable as the need and the demand arises. Unlike the other stations, Nanoracks’ would not play host to space tourists as a significant part of the firm’s business model. “There could be some tourism,” says Manber, “but I believe that a great nation should not rest its future and the frontier on tourism. We are focused on cutting edge research and biopharm manufacturing in space.”

The Nanoracks "science park" would be habitable after just a single launch of a single componentNanoracks artist's conception

All of the other companies’ plans notwithstanding, it is still Axiom Space, with its firm deal to send four modules to the ISS from 2024 to 2027, that is likely the horse to bet on. Not only is the company sending hardware aloft, it has also arranged tourist flights to the station—leasing out the SpaceX Crew Dragon to take passengers aloft for eight-day stays. The first crew is set to fly as early as April 6.

The Market Will Rule

For all this industrial churn, the question remains: Is there a real market for private space stations? The best analogy—the way both SpaceX and Boeing have stepped up to develop private spacecraft—is actually not a very good one, Logsdon argues. The U.S. had a need to get astronauts to the station, and after the shuttles stood down, it was dependent on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to do the job. That arrangement cost NASA more than $80 million a seat and was always subject to the changing winds of geopolitics. Having a domestic, commercial alternative was very attractive.

“There was an existing market to carry people to the space station,” Logsdon says. “There’s not the same kind of government function to support multiple companies in Earth orbit.”

NASA disagrees, arguing that it plans to pay for the privilege to send its own astronauts to work aboard some of the new outposts. But with a potential four stations flying at once each capable of carrying four to eight crew members, there could be more supply than the agency’s work demands.

NASA of course, is not the only potential customer. There are plenty of deep-pocketed adventurers who will keep at least a marginal space tourism industry viable, and all of the companies are open to flying astronauts from other, friendly countries’ space programs, as well as crew members from private industry conducting potential for-profit research in orbit.

“It’s like a traditional business park,” says Sherwood. “We do the utilities—the sewers, the power lines, all the stuff that makes it usable. The tenants have their own business model, whatever it might be—maybe a filmmaker or a national laboratory or a space agency. But my attitude is if you pay your rent and you don’t break my space station then I’m happy.”

Still, Sherwood himself agrees that his business park might not be joined by a lot of other business parks. “The good news is [that the market] exists, it’s proven, it’s stable, it’s predictable. The bad news is it’s stable, it’s predictable. It’s not necessarily a large growth market. And so if you start subdividing it across multiple providers, you weaken the business case for all of them.”

Mastracchio of Northrop Grumman agrees. “Likely the market will not support four commercial space stations,” he says. “I would love to be optimistic and say, yes, all four are going to be hugely successful, but the market is what’s going to drive this.”

Instead, as with the personal computer business in the 1980s, there is likely to be a sort of Darwinian winnowing, with the strongest company or two surviving and the others being squeezed out by having too few customers or too little revenue to survive in a competitive climate. Indeed, some of the stations may wind up as nothing more than vaporware, finding themselves shelved before they’re built if the market doesn’t develop or the manufacturing price climbs too high. Even the stations that do get built may not last. Logsdon points to the historical record of airline failures and consolidations—farewell Pan Am, Eastern, TWA—as a historical precedent. “There’s lots of examples of companies chasing the same market,” he says, “and when the market operates, there will be winners and losers.”

Either way, one thing is certain: Close to a quarter century after the first component of the ISS went online, the U.S. government is retiring its space station portfolio. The laws of commercial natural selection will determine who picks up that work. NASA may have chosen the four companies that will lead the way, but like every other potential customer, it will now have to wait to see which ones deliver.

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