Blue Origin has certainly stepped up its game of late! After stepping down as the CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos has made it his personal mission to take the company he founded in 2000 and turn it into a powerhouse of the commercial space sector. Between some high-profile missions involving the New Shepard – which included passengers like Wally Funk, William Shatner, and even himself and his brother – Bezos has also been outspoken about his long-term vision.
Bezos describes this vision as “building a road to space so our children can build the future.” In the latest step towards achieving this, Blue Origin announced a new partnership with Sierra Space to develop a commercial space station in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), known as “Orbital Reef.” This mixed-use space station, which is to be completed by the end of this decade, will facilitate commerce, research, tourism, and facilitate the commercialization of LEO.
Consistent with the goal of increasing access to space, the station is essentially a “business park,” where shared infrastructure supports the needs of many different users. This concept has been used as a business model on Earth for generations but is unprecedented where space is concerned. But given the growth of the commercial space sector in recent years, applying this same model to LEO will have the benefit of fostering this growth further.
The interior of the Orbital Reef. Credit: Orbital Reef
The baseline configuration for this base consists of multiple science and habitation modules capable of supporting ten people in a space measuring 830 m3 (29,311 ft3) in volume. This is almost as large as the soon-to-be-retired International Space Station (ISS), with an interior volume of 915.6 m3 (32,333 ft 3). The design incorporates multiple berths, vehicle ports, utilities, and amenities to service multiple customers, as well as many large, Earth-facing windows that provide visitors with a beautiful view of Earth from space.
As a cutting-edge commercial destination in LEO, the Orbital Reef’s ultimate purpose is to provide the essential infrastructure to scale economic activity and open new markets in space. By combining reusable space transportation, smart design, advanced automation, and logistics, the station will minimize the cost and complexity for companies currently operating in space and new arrivals – like commercial space companies, government research institutes, or private institutes.
In addition to Blue Origin and Sierra Space, the Orbital Reef project is backed by space industry leaders like Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University (ASU). Blue Origin will be responsible for providing the station’s core modules and utility systems and launch services provided by the reusable New Glenn heavy launch systems. As Brent Sherwood, the Senior Vice President of Advanced Development Programs for Blue Origin said in a company press statement that accompanied the announcement:
“For over sixty years, NASA and other space agencies have developed orbital space flight and space habitation, setting us up for commercial business to take off in this decade. We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight. A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”