ASU joins Sierra Space, Blue Origin, Boeing and others to build commercial space station

commercial space station
Rendering of Orbital Reef

Arizona State University is joining the charge to commercialize space. The school is now one of the organizations working toward building a commercial space station. 

The private station is called Orbital Reef and will be a “mixed-use business park” for national governments, private industry and space tourists to lease and use. The effort is led by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space, a subsidiary of aerospace contractor Sierra Nevada Corporation. Boeing, Redwire Space and Genesis Engineering are other major partners. 

ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative heads the Orbital Reef University Advisory Council, which is a group of more than a dozen international universities. The council will build a set of guidelines and standards for ethical research on the future station. It will also provide consulting for academic institutions new to space research, information about the user experience on the station and other education programs. 

The initiative will form interdisciplinary teams to find ways to meet the needs for humans to be successful in space, drawing from information across a variety of areas, from humanities and social sciences to STEM fields. The group will also create partnerships in both private and public sectors so that anyone who wants to can participate in space exploration. 

The initiative also includes a 6,800-square-foot lab for research and development. The group’s partners can connect with ASU students, faculty and staff to build and test space hardware and software. 

“Throughout the 20th century, space exploration has been the realm of the hero, the unreachable astronaut, the one special person,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative, told ASU News. “But with Orbital Reef, we will make it accessible for so many more people who can participate in many different ways.” 

Elkins-Tanton compares Orbital Reef to a village, where people from different organizations can interact with each other while also working independently on their own projects.

Orbital Reef isn’t the only commercial space station in progress. It’s actually the third station announced to date. Axiom Space was the first to express interest in building a station and, less than a week ago, Voyager Space, Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their own version, called “Starlab.” 

The Orbital Reef partners plan to release the station into orbit in the second half of the decade. When complete, the station will be able to host up to 10 people and will be 90% of the current volume of the International Space Station, which is aging quickly and in need of a replacement. Orbital Reef and other commercial space stations will be tasked with being just that.

The project is in its early stages, but each partner is optimistic. At this point, humans living in space is inevitable. 

“Humans are compelled to explore; it’s in our bones. We will become an interplanetary species,” Elkins-Tanton said. “We have an opportunity to use the inspiration of space exploration to take better care of the Earth by involving all of society and driving technological advances that will help solve problems here below.”