The Orbital Assembly Corporation — a large-scale space construction firm — announced its aims to launch the next phase of human exploration in space.
In short, the company of NASA veterans plans to rapidly assemble a habitable "space hotel" in low-Earth orbit that spins fast enough to generate artificial gravity for guests, scientists, astronauts, and more, according to an event called "First Assembly" — which streamed live on the company's YouTube channel.
As a multi-stage project to build the first-ever space station featuring artificial gravity, Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC) is now officially open for investors to co-own at $0.25 per share, until April 1, 2021. But with such a heavy emphasis on commercial backing and services, it's unclear what near-term benefits this will foster for the public.
NASA veterans building first space hotel with artificial gravity
Similar to the von Braun concept for space stations — where a wheel- (or donut-) shaped habitat is made to spin with an angular velocity high enough to create artificial gravity for occupants — the Orbital Assembly Corporation's (OAC's) goal is to build a ring-shaped Voyager Space Station (VSS) with a diameter of 650 ft (200 m) and capable of creating moon-levels of artificial gravity.
However, while the company is open to science, military, and other strategic activities on that station, it aims to accelerate commercial activity in space by testing and building the technology needed for long-term human habitats in space, explained OAC's CEO and President John Blincow.
The most familiar cultural bookmark to the OAC's Voyager Space Station is the fictional space station in the film "2001: A Space Odyssey." But this isn't science fiction.
Building the rotating space station in stages
"Our vision is to create a space construction company for the design, manufacture, and assembly of large structures in space, including commercial space stations, space solar power platforms, and propellant depots," reads the company's introduction on Net Capital. "To achieve this objective, we developed several design patents for in-space assembly robots."
"To enable a robust, human-centered space economy, our capabilities are geared toward the construction of a Voyager Space Station (VSS)," continued the OAC intro on the stock site. "We plan to build the rotating space station in stages, starting with a small-scale station demonstration station, and one or more free-flying microgravity facilities, utilizing VSS components."
Two prototypes on the road to Voyager Space Station
OAC will first build DSTAR and later the Prototype Structural Truss Assembly Robot (PSTAR) — which will both precede Voyager Space Station, explained Blincow. All investors will become one of the first to help build the first artificial-gravity-capable space stations in orbit.
"This will be the next industrial revolution," said Blincow.
"We haven't seen an explosion of commercial activity in space," said OAC's COO, CFO, and VP Business Admin and Habitat Design Tim Alatorre. "The cost has been about $8,000 per kg for a long time," he added. "But with the Falcon 9, you can do it for less than $2,000. And as Starship comes online, it will only cost a few hundred dollars."
"Microgravity is just brutal on our bodies," explained Alatorre. "We need artificial gravity — a mechanism to give us a dosage of gravity to give us the ability to live long-term in space." OAC's DSTAR hardware is already under production.
Truss assembly robot to build station in low-Earth orbit
The company's truss assembly robot will be the first to build a space station in low-Earth orbit and serve as "the structural backbone of future projects in space," said Fabrication Manager of OAC Tim Clements. As of writing, the machine is undergoing commissioning and shipping before it's completed and tested in California.
The prototype will produce a truss section roughly 300 ft (90m) in length in under 90 minutes, said Clements during the live stream event. "DSTAR weighs almost 8 tons in mass — consisting of steel, electrical, and mechanical components."
Observer drone robot to enable remote viewing, footage in space
The company is also building an observer drone — its first in-house development project. "It's going to be our eyes on the job site," said Alatorre. "The observer drone operates in a support function. It can perch on existing craft, it can also be fully-reusable and can fly and have a free-flight mode on extended missions."
Alatorre also said the company can fit a VR headset on the robot — enabling drone operators to direct the robot remotely.
"The gravity ring is going to be a key technology demonstration project that we plan to build, assemble, and operate in low-earth orbit in just a few years' time," said OAC Co-Founder, Director, and former staff member at NASA Ames Research Center Jeff Greenblatt. "The company also plans to use an orbital version of the DSTAR called the PSTAR which stands for Prototype Structural Truss Assembly Robot."
Gravity Ring Prototype for Voyager Space Station
Before the Voyager Space Station can begin taking reservations, OAC needs to test both building a station in low-Earth orbit, and ensuring the capable and stable generation of artificial gravity in space. The prototype gravity ring will measure 200 ft (60 m) in diameter. As a rectangular truss, the company will make it the prototype ring spin to create artificial gravity up to Mars' level, explained Greenblatt.
The gravity ring project will take two to three years to build and launch, said Greenblatt. But once it's in orbit, the company aims to assemble it in three days. After assembly, comes testing every feature, and learning how to provide stable artificial gravity with limited vibration.
Gravity ring is the 'near-term demonstrator' of space hotel
The gravity ring may also become a research platform — as OAC is currently in talks with several international space agencies and other entities about flying their payloads on the prototype, said Greenblatt. This will offer some public good — since researchers are interested in the effects of partial artificial gravity on both non-living and living systems.
"This will give researchers an unprecedented opportunity to access that intermediate gravity regime," Greenblatt said. "This will then pave the way for OAC to build larger, more complex structures in space — which is obviously necessary if we're going to get to the point of building Voyager station and other larger structures beyond."
While Voyager station will be OAC's main feature — with a capacity of 400 people — gravity ring is the "near-term demonstrator" for space enthusiasts to watch out for, said Alatorre. On the gravity ring, the company will test a lot of the technologies used to build Voyager Station.
Voyager Station will integrate 24 habitation modules
The Voyager Station will be roughly 650 ft (200 m) in diameter — with 24 integrated habitation modules, each of which will be 65 ft (20 m) in length and 40 ft (12 m) in diameter. At near-lunar gravity, the VSS will have functional toilets, showers, and allow running and jumping in normal albeit unnatural-feeling ways.
Fixed modules will handle air water and power — but there will also be a kitchen module, and a gym for sports and special events. Notably, the executive officers of OAC hope the first use for the orbiting ring will be as a space hotel.
Space hotel guests may go on spacewalks
Government and private companies may use the modules for training for missions to the moon and beyond. "It will be a spring-board for entrepreneurs to plan tourist activities in space."
"We don't want the Voyager experience to be like being in an attack submarine in combat — so we're [building] for comfort," said Tom Spilker, OAC's CTO, and VP of Engineering and Space Systems Design who has worked at NASA JPL on the Voyager probes, Cassini, and more. "It's a bit smaller than the length of the U.S. Capitol building," with a roughly 1 and one-quarter rotation-per-minute angular velocity.
Despite the seemingly endless list of luxury amenities, there will also be airlocks for visitors — so anyone who can afford a space hotel can go on a private spacewalk, "where the only thing between you and the universe is a faceplate," said Spilker.
Hard to say who the next space age serves
In the last several decades, scientists and astronauts have gathered vast amounts of data from human space flight, expanding our knowledge of how human biology — including our neural systems — are affected by zero-G gravity.
"We have lots of data in zero-G, we have lots of data in 1 G, but what about in between?" asked OAC's Medical Advisor Shawna Pandya, rhetorically. "In a seminal 2017 paper from Nature called Artificial Gravity — agencies came together to analyze how the human body would react to partial-Earth gravity."
"We offer solutions to these questions in a place that's as convenient as low-Earth orbit," said Pandya.
As Orbital Assembly Corporation begins amassing investors for its gravity ring, Voyager Space Station, and beyond — there's no doubting we've entered a new chapter of the space age. It's clear that science and exploration will have roles in this future, but — unlike the days of Apollo and the Space Shuttle — it's hard to say who this new chapter ultimately serves.