Another Commercial Space Station

As with the Nanoracks/Lockmart one, there is no discussion of orbital location. It looks like Sierra has decided to team up.

[Tuesday-morning update]

OK, here’s a description from NASA Spaceflight. They clearly want to be co-orbital with ISS, but they say that they’ll be at a higher altitude. That doesn’t make sense, because if they aren’t at the same altitude, the nodes are going to drift apart and while they’ll be at the same inclination, they will be in a different orbit plane. They should be leading or trailing it at the same altitude if they want to stay co-planar.

33 thoughts on “Another Commercial Space Station”

  1. Good. Competition raises all stations, to a point.

    Bezos though? The dabbler? Well, better than Branson, I guess – he’s a hobbiest.

      1. Very fair question. That will, I suspect, depend on how much Bezos wants a space station vs. just getting some NASA money. If Sierra Space made this deal in the expectation Bezos would do the heavy financial lifting I hope they got that in writing.

        Still, even if it’s now the Bezos tail wagging the Sierra Space dog, it’s good to see the latter actually step up in the wake of the Starlab announcement of a few days ago. More stations are better than fewer.

  2. LEO is filled with… wait, no, LEO is NOT filled with promised game-changing stations, depots and visionary developments.

    When BO actually starts launching to orbit with a reasonable cadence, I might take something like this seriously.
    I wish them the best and hope they succeed, but color me skeptical.

    1. We are entering a stage of development similar to how Russia operates, lots of plans and promises and little follow through.

      SpaceX was criticized for doing too many things at one time, iterating the Falcon 9 and developing a cargo/crew capsule. Bezos is all over the place and hasn’t delivered any operational product in a timely manner.

  3. It’s worth taking special note of the fact that Redwire is the Canadian manufacturer of Bigelow’s softgoods for Genesis 1 & 2, and BEAM, further hinting at the permanence of Bigelow’s demise.

    In the discussion of this on NSF, somebody brought up the idea of using Soyuz for crew rather than Starliner, and launching from an ST pad at the Cape. This is a non-starter for two reasons: 1. There’s already a Soyuz ST pad at Kourou that can reach any inclination. 2. The Russians are not going to be building a pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.

    However, as I noted in another discussion here, you could launch a Soyuz MS atop an Antares 230+ from Wallops with little modification to the pad or LV. And there was already a (now abandoned) plan to equip Antares with a Japanese upper stage using an MB-60 engine. No reason you could revive that using the existing Soyuz ST Improved Blok I stage, which is about the right size. This would make integration of the launch escape system even easier (Russian engines, Russian upper stage, Russian spacecraft, only the Ukranian first tankage and plumbing to make trouble). I think the Russians would take the money and run.

      1. What I had in mind was Space Force refusing to let Roskosmos build an ST pad at Canaveral. Besides, it might be cost prohibitive, given the structure of a Soyuz pad and the geology of Florida. I’d have to look at the entire array of former pads at the Cape and KSC, but I think LC-39B might be the only one that would work. I guess you could use VAB and a mobile transporter.

        I was looking at the prototype Soyuz-5 today and realized that could probably be adapted to use Wallops (MARS), maybe even the current Antares pad. It uses an RD-171 engine, and I think has the same diameter as the former Zenit-3 (which, iirc, is the same as Antares, using the Zenit tooling in the Ukraine). It also use the same upper stage engine as Soyuz-ST (RD-0124 for the Improved Blok I). It’s all unlikely, but fun to think about.

  4. All of these developments are rather incestuous. It must be alluring to get on board with deep pockets but it is also incredibly dangerous to the health of your business. It introduces an incredibly complex type of risk that is far worse than any normal market risk.

    I suspect that rather than technical expertise, the main reason these relationships are formed is to take advantage of the lobbying and government connections the deep pockets have.

  5. Well I’d hope NASA could shove some money at these proposals, not playing favorites like they did with Boeing or throwing the bucks down the SLS hole. The thing is, be general. Don’t tie into any particular launcher. Just say we need this amount of lift and a rocket that can put this diameter payload into orbit (of course I’d help to have ‘friendly’ parameters here). All bids welcome, timeline to first launch as well as cost will be considered in the bid. But would NASA be allowed to do that? Throw money at the chefs and see what is cooked up? I guess the issue is that NASA is not DARPA.

  6. My concern is that Orbital Reef will turn out to be the same as the National Team for HLS. Just an attempt to get NASA money, followed by destructive lawsuits when it doesn’t work out that could end the Axiom segment and eventual station. I’m sorry Sierra bought into it. Reading the documents, Orbital Reef is slightly smaller than ISS, with a crew of 10. I count at least 12 separately launched modules. How is that better than Starlab, one launch 4 crew? You could dock three Starlabs end to end and come out way ahead. Even Axiom is 4 launches, 8 crew. This looks like yet another destructive Bezos maneuver. Too bad.

    1. The initial station is supposed to be a third the size of the one in the photo. That would be a thirty person station presumably.

      1. I somehow missed that detail, so thanks. Foust’s article in Space News (which I only managed to read today) says it will be one core module, one LIFE module, one Boeing lab, and one energy tower. I guess that makes four launches, so pretty much equivalent to what Axiom is putting up. Maybe the 10-crew comes from that being the current capacity of two Starliners? (NASA is only using four seats, but Starliner retains structural support for a fifth seat. Dragon would have to have some redesign to regain its lost lower deck seating.)

  7. Absolutely, William Barton. Expect more protests and lawfare when Bezos doesn’t get his taxpayer funds.

    1. I’m afraid you may be right. If nothing else, Bezos could ask why Axiom gets ownership of the Node 2 forward berth at ISS, instead of Orbital Reef. Maybe the Russians could offer him the aft port on Prichal? They’d have to mount the energy tower pointing aftwards, as nadir and zenith would have conflicts. I’d like to see an image of ISS in that config!

    1. That makes no sense. If it’s at a higher altitude, the node will drift and it won’t be co-orbital with the ISS. It should lead or trail it at the same altitude.

      1. You are right, higher orbits are slower orbits.

        I assume it would eventually precess to the point the planes were once again momentarily in synch but how long would that take?

        I could see repurposing parts of the ISS with a tug but it won’t be cut and dried and it would be a window that opens and closes to move from in to the other. You won’t just be able to jump from one to the other at a whim.

      2. I can see why they want to be higher from a drag perspective.

        I think I heard once the reason the ISS isn’t higher is because of limitations on the Soyuz.

        1. Higher altitude is better for both drag and insolation, but harder to get to, with less payload. ISS was lower when Shuttle was operating, because the off-nominal performance of the Shuttle sucked, and payload dropped off a cliff with altitude. It’s higher now because Soyuz and Dragon aren’t as sensitive. But it makes no sense to me to be in the same inclination as ISS, but not be co-orbital with it.

          1. I remember now, the orbiter mass itself counts against payload. A significant hit at high inclinations.

      3. It’s pretty funny they got that detail wrong (whoever made the mistake). I think this is an attempt to horn in on Axiom, which currently owns the rights to the Node 2 Forward port. Maybe if the Russians leave, Oasis Reef can latch onto the Node 1 Aft port?

      4. The altitude doesn’t matter. They would be in the same orbital plane with respect to the background stars. The only way to start in the same orbital plane and end up in a different plane is if one or the other object applied thrust normal to the orbital plane.

  8. They clearly want to be co-orbital with ISS, but they say that they’ll be at a higher altitude. That doesn’t make sense

    User input error: orbital mechanics challenged article?

  9. How much would the following cost, to build, and launch.
    A space station that can hold 324 workers?
    An SPS capable of generating 5 GW of electric power?
    I think I read that an SPS would now weigh about 5,000 tons. Back in the 70s, it was about 50,000 tons. If it can be built at 5,000 tons, then it would take 34 launches, to build an SPS.

    How about the space station? It would be made out of inflatables. Or could use 6 Starships. 3 to house the workers, and the other 3 for dining, recreation, command center, airlock, and medical.

    Use collage basketball players to build the SPS. They would be between 19, and 22 years of age. There would be 300 of these. 12 workers would do nothing but cleaning. The other 12 would work in maintenance, and command center.

    So, what would be the total cost to build, and launch all that? This is assuming that the first SPS would be launched from Earth.

  10. As things stand, I think Axiom and Starlab are the most viable. Axiom is under construction and has financing (some from NASA, some from tourists seats on the 4 precursor Dragon flights). If Bezos lawfare doesn’t intervene, I think it’ll work out.

    I think Starlab will work out because it’s a modernized equivalent of the Soviet/Russian DOS module, and can play the same role. If nothing else, they can be sold to organizations and countries that pass ITAR muster. Heck, you could pay Roskosmos to sell you a Nodal Module equipped with NDS ports and dock 6 Starlabs to it. That’d be “up to” 24 crew.

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