The Age of Private Space Stations Is Upon Us

Itt 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. Vande Hei was just back from a long 355 day marathon on the International Space Station, setting a new U.S. record for space endurance. 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.”

Time and age are able to break what war cannot. 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 its ISS partner had initially planned to make the station operational until 2025. After that, it would undergo an incineration blast through the atmosphere into the sea. In December, the Biden Administration extended its life to 2030—provided the hardware can last that long. However, it is still operational regardless of when its final date will be.

NASA declared Dec. 2, 2021 that the U.S. would be leaving the space station race, probably for good, when the clock runs out. 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. This arrangement mirrors the 2014 NASA deal with SpaceX, Boeing and Nanoracks. NASA contracted with each company to create crew vehicles that can carry astronauts into 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 has previously signed a deal to launch four modules with AxiomSpace, based in Houston. The company will dock the ISS with up to four other modules. This will allow them to become their own space station free of charge before the ISS is retired. With the first module scheduled to launch in September 2024 and three others following nine months apart, there will be four more modules. If you add the three other companies currently under NASA contract, there will be at most four private space stations orbiting Earth by the end of this 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. There is much talk about biopharmaceuticals research in zero-g. This includes the production of protein crystals which can help 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. Ondler, however is not clear on what other private stations could 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 seems to be in agreement, although it is only indirectly. 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. The space agency generates revenue mainly through the support of 312,000 jobs and $7 billion in taxes.

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 remains to be seen if this vision will become a 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. “

The hardware that the team is building, regardless of where it came from, is amazing. 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. On the other 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.

Blue Origin’s plans for launching its modules is still unknown. The company’s New Shepard rocket has been launched on 20 suborbital missions, four of them crewed. New Shepard was not built to transport heavy cargo in orbit. The company will need to use its in-development New Glenn rocket for this purpose. Blue Origin has been secretive about its progress on New Glenn; Sherwood says only that there will be “more date specificity” later this year.

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. Although the Northrop Grumman station’s initial design has a smaller habitable volume than Orbital Reef it would provide enough room for astronauts to comfortably live.

“I would say each of the Cygnuses is the size of a school bus. The main component is almost as big as 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. Starlab is the company’s station, with its central lab module called the George Washington Carver Science Park. The entire structure will be 340 cubic metres in volume (or 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.”

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. In April, the company will send its first crew to take off.

The Market Will Rule

All this industry churn begs the question: Does there really exist a market for private space stations, despite all of its industrial excesses? 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. NASA was charged more than $80 per seat, and it was constantly subject to changing geopolitical winds. It was attractive to have a commercial, domestic alternative.

“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. It claims that NASA will be paying for its astronauts to travel to the 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, however, is not the only 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.”

Sherwood acknowledges, however that his business park is not likely to be joined by many others. “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 from Northrop Grumman concurs. “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.”

As with the 80s personal computer industry, it is possible to see a Darwinian winnowing. The strongest companies will survive, while the rest of the competition are left behind. 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. It is possible that even the ones built will not survive. 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.”

One thing is certain, however: Nearly a quarter century since the launch of the first component on the ISS, the U.S. government has decided to retire its entire space station fleet. It will be determined by the laws of commercial natural selection who takes over that task. NASA has chosen four companies, but as with all other customers it must wait to see who delivers.

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