Dare we say that a new type of space race is heating up? Blue Origin, the space tourism firm founded by billionaire Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced a partnership with Sierra Space and Boeing to build and launch a commercial space station called Orbital Reef by the end of the decade, a press statement reveals.
If Lockheed Martin and Nanoracks have their way, Orbital Reef won't be the first commercial orbital outpost in low Earth orbit, as the two firms are collaborating to launch their own station by 2027.
Jeff Bezos wants to open 'multiple new markets in space'
Blue Origin's Orbital Reef is "designed to open multiple new markets in space" and it "will provide anyone with the opportunity to establish their own address on orbit," the private space firms claims in its statement. Orbital Reef will have a crew capacity of 10 people and it will act as a "mixed-use business park".
According to a new website for the station, separate businesses and activities will take place at the same time aboard the outpost. Orbital Reef, for example, will be ideal for "film-making in microgravity" as well as for "conducting cutting-edge research" and it will even include a "space hotel." In order to make these lofty goals a reality, Blue Origin is working with several organizations on developing the multipurpose station, including Arizona State University and Redwire Space. Another firm, Genesis Engineering, is developing a "Single Person Spacecraft" that will allow astronauts aboard the station to conduct "spacewalks" inside a small craft, removing the need for them to wear a spacesuit.
Who will launch first?
Blue Origin, alongside Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, recently kickstarted its space tourism services. Bezos' firm has launched Bezos himself as well as Star Trek's William Shatner into space on two separate trips. It is worth pointing out that Blue Origin has yet to actually launch into low Earth orbit, the orbit on which its outpost will be stationed. Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket and capsule launch passengers over the Ka´rmán Line — 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth's surface — though it does not reach orbital space. So the space firm has a lot of work to do before it can meet its stated goal of starting "operating in the second half of this decade."
Blue Origin hasn't revealed how much the Orbital Reef project will cost, though, as the BBC points out, Jeff Bezos has previously stated that he will commit $1 billion to Blue Origin every year. Bezos and private space enterprise rival Elon Musk have traded places for the position of the world's richest person several times over the past few months, and they have also been at the center of a heated dispute over a contract awarded to Musk's firm SpaceX for building a moon lander. That legal dispute is a window into the intense rivalry behind the scenes at private space companies, amid massive investment into new technologies.
Blue Origin's new plans come to light at a time in which NASA is planning for life after the International Space Station, as agreements on its operation are set to expire by 2024. With the International Space Station showing signs that it is coming to the end of its operations, NASA recently announced plans to award $400 million to private space companies in a bid to replace the iconic orbital outpost. Blue Origin already faces strong competition. Only last week, Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their own plans to launch the "first-ever free-flying commercial space station", called Starlab, by 2027. The two companies are collaborating with NASA to build an orbital outpost for "tourism and other commercial and business activities." The space tourism race is already in full force, and it seems we might be about to see the start of the space station race, as private firms scramble to build their stations and earn a large chunk of that NASA funding.