WASHINGTON – Commercial space carrier Blue Origin is considering developing commercial space stations, with NASA as a potential early customer.
Blue Origin published a job that opened on September 18 for the “Orbital Habitat Formulation Lead” at its headquarters in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington. That individual will be prosecuted for leading the company’s development of commercial space stations in a low earth orbit as a new product line.
“To develop Blue Origin’s vision of millions of people living and working in space, humanity will require places for them to live and work: space destination systems where value-added economic activity can occur,”
The job involves leading technical and business aspects of commercial space station development, including identification of customers and partners. It would also include “potential acquisitions” to support this effort.
“By partnering with business development personnel, you will develop a detailed understanding of NASA, other governmental and commercial needs, and guide the iterative development of product strategy,” the job description states. “You will be responsible for capturing external and internal sponsorship funding to establish viable LEO destination systems by the 2020s.”
The description places particular emphasis on NASA as a potential user and funder of the effort. “Tap your extensive NASA network (especially HQ, JSC, MSFC and KSC) to shape and accelerate the acquisition strategy for LEO destination systems,” it says, referring to NASA’s headquarters and Johnson Space Center, Marshall Space Flight Center and Kennedy Space Center, the three NASA field centers most closely associated with human spaceflight. “Understand their needs and how they can be developed.”
In its LEO commercialization strategy announced last year, NASA said it would support the development of both commercial modules installed on the ISS as well as “free-flyer” space stations that operate independently of the ISS. In January, Axiom Space chose access to an ISS port, which the company will use for a series of commercial modules that it will launch from 2024 as a precursor to a possible independent space station.
However, NASA paused a separate call to support a free airport. At a session of the ISS’s research and development conference on August 27, agency officials said they were still interested in pursuing this call but did not provide a schedule for doing so, which may explain the language of the Blue Origin job description “to shape and accelerate the acquisition strategy for LEO destination systems. ”
“I can not promise any specific timelines associated with it, but we are definitely working on the free flight magazine and intend to soon release a call that once we have agreed on our strategy internally,” said Phil McAlister, head of commercial spaceflight programs. at NASA, said at the conference.
Other companies are likely to be interested in the free complaint once they are released. Nanoracks has proposed commercial space stations called Outposts that can be created by renovating upper stages, remaining in circulation after launches, into modules. Bigelow Aerospace has long proposed developing commercial space stations using expandable or inflatable modules, but the company lost all its employees in March due to the pandemic and has not provided updates since then on its plans.
Blue Origin has not publicly discussed work on LEO space stations before, but as the job description suggests, it fits into the strategy that the company and its billions of founders, Jeff Bezos, have often stated about enabling millions of people to live and work in space. Bezos, in previous appearances, have shown images of giant space settlements, modeled after the space colonies proposed by the late Gerard K. O’Neill half a century ago.
Bezos has also discussed on many occasions the use of Blue Origin to establish the infrastructure to enable new commercial activity in space. It has included its work with launch vehicles and more recently lunar landers. Commercial space stations can be seen as another form of space infrastructure.
New Shepard returns to aviation
Blue Origin announced separately on September 22 plans to conduct a new test flight of its New Shepard suborbital vehicle. The vehicle is scheduled to take off from the company’s West Texas test site at 11 a.m. Eastern Sept. 24.
That mission, designated NS-13, will carry a dozen payloads for science and technology, including one from NASA to test precision landing technologies that can be used on future lunar landers. That deorbit, descent and landing sensor demonstration is the first to be mounted on the outside of the New Shepard, rather than being carried inside the vehicle’s crew module.
The unconfirmed flight will be the seventh in a row for this particular vehicle, but the first since December 2019. Company officials said earlier this year that they expected to perform a few more unwritten test flights before flying humans, but the company has not provided updates since then on its human spaceflight commercial plans, including when it plans to start selling seats and at what price.