A plan by Sierra Space, based in Louisville, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin for a space station to invigorate U.S.-led commercial activity beyond the Earth’s atmosphere is one of three supported by NASA for further development.
The space agency has signed a $130 million agreement with the companies for the project, called Orbital Reef. Earlier this year, Sierra Space and Blue Origin announced the plans to work together on a commercially owned and operated space station, intended to be a kind of “mixed-use business park” in space.
The agreement with NASA is an important step in the future of commercial activity in space, said Neeraj Gupta, vice president and general manager of space destinations at Sierra Space, a subsidiary of the Sierra Nevada Corp.
“At the end of October, we announced with Blue Origin that we are going to build the first commercial space station with the purpose of lowering the barrier for access for anybody, whether government or individuals or industries,” Gupta said.
The companies want to launch the station around 2027. The objective is to have something in place before the International Space Station is retired.
“NASA seeks to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the International Space Station to other platforms,” the federal agency said Dec. 2 when it announced the agreements on designs for commercial space stations.
NASA said it’s partnering with U.S. companies to develop destinations “where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”
The other designs endorsed by NASA are by Nanoracks LLC and Northrop Grumman Systems Corp.
Blue Origin will lead the development of the space station’s infrastructure, large-diameter metal modules and a reusable launch system. Sierra Space is leading development of small-diameter metal node modules and the Large Integrated Flexible Environment, or LIFE habitat.
The LIFE habitat is an expandable, circular living space whose outside fabric weave is made from liquid crystal polymer and, according to Sierra Space, is as strong as steel. It consists of three floors and is 27 feet in diameter and 27 feet long.
The entire structure is a modular design, Gupta said. “The whole thought here is we can increase the size or change the modules based on the demand because we see a lot of demand.”
Sierra Space is also developing Dream Chaser, a fixed-wing space plane that can land on runways and whose design harks back to the Space Shuttle. NASA is contracting with Sierra Space to use the spacecraft to ferry cargo, but no crew, to the International Space Station.
“We’re planning to fly at the end of next year,” Gupta said.
The company continues to develop the version of the spacecraft that will carry both crew and cargo to the Orbital Reef, Gupta added.
Others working with Sierra Space and Blue Origin on Orbital reef include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions and Arizona State University.
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