Can you improve on the ISS? Nanoracks hopes Starlab will fit the bill

Nanoracks CEO Tim Kopra tells IE they are building the 'most capable, cost-effective, and sustainable space station.'
Chris Young
An artist's impression of Starlab in orbit.
An artist's impression of Starlab in orbit.

Nanoracks / Hilton 

  • Nanoracks is developing its Starlab space station as one of several eventual successors to the International Space Station.
  • The private space company is partnering with Hilton to develop state-of-the-art sleeping quarters for astronauts and space tourists.
  • Former NASA astronaut and Nanoracks CEO Tim Kopra explains that the firm has learned from "23 years of permanent human presence on board the ISS."

Back in 2021, Houston, Texas-based space company Nanoracks announced its plans to build the world's first free-flying commercial space station. 

The Starlab space station project, a collaboration with Lockheed Martin, received $160 million in funding from NASA as the space agency looks to launch a number of privately-built successors to the International Space Station (ISS).

As the ISS approaches the end of its operations in the 2030s, NASA aims to innovate by spreading its orbital presence over various smaller stations.

Last year, Nanoracks appointed former NASA astronaut Tim Kopra as CEO. Kopra has vast experience aboard the space station and has performed a number of spacewalks in Earth orbit. He acknowledges the challenge of succeeding the ISS while also highlighting the fact that there's room for improvement.

"The ISS is an amazing space vehicle and laboratory and one of the greatest engineering feats ever accomplished," Kopra told IE in an interview.

"We can learn from the 23 years of a permanent human presence on board ISS and the operations, technology, and hardware that have worked well, and what can be improved."

The first free-flying commercial space station

The career of Nanoracks' CEO has coincided with some of the most important moments in the history of the ISS. Having served in the U.S. Army, Kopra was selected as a NASA astronaut in 2000, the same year the ISS became operational.

He first flew to the orbital station in 2009 as part of the Expedition 20 crew and he returned from the station for the last time in 2009, having served as Commander for Expedition 47. During his time aboard the ISS, he racked up more than 33 hours of spacewalk time.

"Working with the multiple teams on the ground and on board the ISS, and especially with the operational complexities of spacewalks, I've seen the importance and applicability of collaboration and teamwork to accomplish any task or mission," Kopra told IE.

Can you improve on the ISS? Nanoracks hopes Starlab will fit the bill
Tim Kopra aboard the ISS in 2016.

That experience places him in a great position to spearhead the development of Starlab, which was announced just before he joined Nanoracks as chief executive in 2022.

Unlike the ISS, Starlab will be a free-flying space station. In this context, free-flying means the space station will not be locked into an orbital position and it will be able to alter its trajectory based on mission requirements.

This will allow it to have greater flexibility and it also means Starlab will be better able to avoid space debris — a growing problem that has affected the ISS in recent years.

Another area of innovation for Starlab will be comfort, as Hilton joined the project last year, announcing it will design a luxurious living space within the station.

Lessons learned from the ISS

Launched in 1998 by NASA and Russia's Roscosmos, the ISS ushered in an unprecedented new era of global scientific cooperation in space.

A quarter of a century later, tensions between the two powers mean orbital science operations are set to become fragmented like never before.

Though NASA aims to extend the space station's lifespan beyond 2030, it has also been planning for a new era without Russian collaboration since before Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russia, meanwhile, has also announced plans for its own space station, which it hopes to launch around 2025.

But how do you plan for life after the ISS, a space station that will go down as one of the most successful scientific operations of all time? The solution NASA is pursuing is one where several smaller operations can meet a variety of mission requirements.

Nanoracks was an ideal candidate, as it has already built hardware that is currently operational aboard the ISS, including the Bishop airlock, the first-ever permanent, commercial addition to ISS infrastructure.

"We work closely with our NASA partners and many others to safely and effectively provide payloads and experiments to the ISS with the same mission focus [shown for Starlab]," Kopra explained.

Nanoracks is one of several companies helping NASA plan for a future beyond the ISS, with other firms including Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin and Sierra Space, both of which are working on a space station called Orbital Reef, which they describe as a "space business park."

Though Starlab is considerably smaller than the ISS — the station has roughly 12,000 cubic feet (340 cubic meters) of internal volume compared with the ISS's 32,333 cubic feet (916 cubic meters) — this will allow it one great advantage over the ISS. 

Nanoracks states on its website that it will only require one rocket launch to send the entire Starlab space station to orbit. The ISS, by comparison, took more than 30 missions to assemble, according to the ISS National Lab.

Can you improve on the ISS? Nanoracks hopes Starlab will fit the bill
An artist's impression of Starlab.

Arguably, one of the greatest improvements present in Starlab, however, will come in the form of crew comfort. As Kopra pointed out, Nanoracks's Starlab "incorporates lessons learned" from the ISS but will also be "easier to maintain and will incorporate vastly improved ergonomics" so as "to include design features from our partner, Hilton."

The Nanoracks CEO added that the space station's design will help to "streamline operations so that we can maximize the use of astronaut crew time and their experience in space."

In a press statement released in September 2022, Hilton explained it would partner with Nanoracks "in the areas of architecture and design, leveraging Hilton's world-class creative design and innovation experts, to develop Space Hospitality crew headquarters aboard Starlab, including communal areas, hospitality suites and sleeping arrangements for the astronauts."

When will Starlab take to the skies?

When it first announced Starlab, Nanoracks claimed the space station would be in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2027, though the company has since altered that deadline to 2028.

According to Kopra, the space company is on track to meet that deadline, meaning it could share LEO with a still operational ISS.

"Since being awarded a Space Act Agreement with NASA in December 2021, Voyager Space and Nanoracks have been working at full force to make Starlab and our on-orbit Science Park a reality," Kopra told IE.

"We are currently in the process of completing the Starlab Systems Requirements Review, and it's very exciting to see how it is all coming together," he said. "Starlab will be designed and built to specifically support missions that our customer base wants, and this approach will allow us to achieve the most capable, cost-effective, and sustainable space station."

Ever since the ISS became operational in 2000, there has been a permanent human presence in space. Nanoracks and others are set to continue this trend for the long-term future.

Maintaining a human presence in space is important, not only for the space industry but for people down on Earth, Kopra explained.

"The micro-gravity environment provides a unique capability to conduct research that we can't perform on Earth, including physics, biology, and technology development to name a few," he said. "Understanding the fundamental science and then identifying ways to apply it to challenges here on Earth is the main purpose of orbiting laboratories."

Ultimately, space exploration is set to benefit our lives on Earth, and space stations in LEO provide the fastest route for that technology to take shape here on Earth.

Astronauts aboard space stations are "the subjects of important physiological research that is not only vital for continued human exploration of space but also for learning about physical conditions that occur with us on Earth," Koprea explained.

"We've learned that astronauts must mitigate the effects of micro-gravity on the human body, such as loss of bone density, muscle atrophy, and visual impairments," he continued. "Solving these challenging issues will advance our ability to treat these conditions for all people."

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