More Commercial Space Stations: Examining the Orbital Reef Announcement

The City of a Few Corporations

It seems almost fitting that as we get closer to the end of the year, a few more companies are releasing announcements for deploying yet another commercial space station in orbit. Axiom Space announced its first private mission to the International Space Station at the beginning of 2021. Before that announcement, I had already provided my take on the initial viability of ISS commercialization and other commercial space station ideas. But it’s safe to say that circumstances still haven’t changed too much for that sector, from Axiom’s announcement to the most recent one.

At the risk of talking more about Blue Origin, it might be worthwhile to start with the company’s proposal for a brand new space station. Although, Blue Origin’s description of the space station as a “mixed-use business park” is unlikely to get most pulses racing. Perhaps the upside, though, is few stakeholders in the low Earth orbit “neighborhood” will push back against the inevitable gentrification of LEO.

Blue Origin calls the proposed space station “Orbital Reef,” which likely refers to the company’s ambition to attract other companies to attach to the station, growing more extensive over time–akin to the Alpha space station in “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.” Except, the core won’t be the International Space Station (ISS), as it was in Valerian, but a corporatized version of it with Orbital Reef at the center. And for those “Rollerball” fans, we all know what happens when corporations take over governance. All that’s missing are those “Countdown”-based numbers from the 1960s and neon–we live in the future, after all. 

A roster of underachievers?

Orbital Reef has attracted other corporations already, as Blue Origin is working with Sierra Space to make the space station a reality. Others, such as Boeing and Redwire Space, are also involved. Boeing was optimistic enough to state it would be operating the Starliner spacecraft for the time when Orbital Reef begins orbiting the Earth in the ”late 2020s.” Some might consider that non-specific date range optimistic, considering Boeing’s difficulties with Starliner to date.

There are some challenges for most participants in the PR announcement. 

First, it should be acknowledged this is a public relations announcement and not an actual plan. Blue and the others want to see if there is any public interest in this idea because enough public interest may force public funds to be released for this private commercial endeavor (which would likely require tens of billions of dollars). Even if this announcement generates enough persistent interest, getting public funds may still be a challenge. A few in the U.S. Senate don’t want more billionaires paddling around (and other things) in the space pool (it lessens the lawmakers’ influence–can’t have that).

Second, as of the announcement, Blue Origin and Boeing have no way to transport space station modules and passengers to orbit themselves. One company is in an apparent development circle, while the other seems unable to come to terms with how to design and manufacture reliable thrusters. 

Including Sierra Space and its Dreamchaser (announced back in 2004!!) does not increase confidence about any of them achieving any part of this plan (Boeing might, in an attempt to mitigate some of its mountain of embarrassment). The challenges and the companies’ responses to them point towards none of the three companies as innovative corporate dynamos able to rush out the required technologies and infrastructure to meet the non-specific late 2020 goal. Such an unrealistic schedule and no management changes again point to an announcement that leans toward PR and not reality. 

A third but perhaps less obvious challenge has more to do with who Blue Origin and the others say the customers for Orbital Reef are, which would then provide a glimpse into how they might generate funds to accomplish this project. That’s not clear.

Step 3: Profit!!

To be sure, Blue Origin pushed the following rationale for getting Orbital Reef in orbit (from the FT article): 

“For over 60 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,” said Brent Sherwood, Blue Origin executive.

“We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalise space flight.”

There are a few ways to expand access to an orbiting space station, the first of which Blue Origin identified:

  • Lower the cost of launch, orbital stay, and return.
  • Increase the frequency of launches to the space station.
  • Build a space station with more capacity than the ISS.

Assuming that Blue Origin eventually routinely launches New Glenn, it’s not clear how the company will lower the cost of a New Glenn launch so much that it can compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9. Last year, I made a case for why I don’t think Blue Origin’s efforts will bring down launch costs. It will instead likely challenge ULA on the more juicy government launch contract turf instead of dominating SpaceX. For Boeing, price-cutting is contrary to its DNA, whatever the medium the company operates in. There will be no cost lowering instigated from those two companies. The companies’ characteristics alone are why this announcement should be seen as a press release and not a plan. Using SpaceX for helping deploy Orbital Reef and transport passengers would be immensely funny but unlikely. 

Increasing launch frequency is easy when a company starts from zero. However and as noted before, it’s hard to increase launch frequency (and deploy a space station) with no rockets at all. And as for the third way to expand access–increasing capacity in a space station–, that also seems to be a bridge too far as Blue Origin shared that about ten people can be in Orbital Reef. That’s about the same as the ISS’ capacity.

One other pertinent fact is that there don’t appear to be many space launch customers/passengers. Even the company launching commercial rockets to get them to orbit today–SpaceX–appears to be moving slowly in this market. The customer lack is not just a problem for SpaceX and Blue Origin, but Boeing, with its Starliner. What won’t change anytime soon is that all of them would have to rely on government-sponsored missions, as noted in “Human Spaceflight: Being Taken for a Ride:”

“There is just one type of steady-paying customer for that service–NASA and government agencies from other nations. The DoD hasn’t publicly expressed any interest in flying humans to space. And SpaceX can’t leverage these human spaceflight launches by simultaneously carrying humans and satellites together. At least, not yet.”

“The question comes down to how many people are willing AND can afford the service’s price? The AX-1 mission and Axiom Space’s business are a subset of the commercial human spaceflight business (which isn’t a business yet). As an FYI, Axiom Space is a CDSE member. You can bet the company embraces the “Space Activities in LEO” bullet, which is currently critical to Axiom’s business plans. The nature and costs of the company’s plans narrow the already small customer-base of those who can afford to fly on a Falcon 9.”

All of this adds up to Orbital Reef and its seeming opportunities as a recipe for a nothing-burger. Considering most of the involved companies, that might be a good thing. To be clear, I would like to see commercial space stations in orbit, and I’ve noted before that they are a tiny step in a much larger and hopefully more prosperous future. But there need to be solid reasons to build–a realistic goal in mind–instead of hoping that governments will use them. 

Doing that requires organizations and people who demonstrate competence, forward-looking ideas, ingenuity, agility, speed, and competence.

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