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Starlab — The Free-Flying Commercial Space Station

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October 2021: Nanoracks, in collaboration with its majority owner Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, has formed a team to develop the first-ever free flying commercial space station. The space station, known as Starlab, will be a continuously crewed commercial platform, dedicated to conducting critical research, fostering industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2027. 1) 2)

To meet U.S. government, international space agency, and commercial needs in space, these industry leaders will develop Starlab specifically to enable the growing space economy and meet pent-up customer demand for space services such as materials research, plant growth, and astronaut activity. Together, these companies bring unparalleled experience in commercial space utilization, engineering design and performance, technology innovation, and investment strategy.

“Since the beginning, Nanoracks has sought to own and operate a private space station to fully unlock market demand,” says Jeffrey Manber, CEO and Co-Founder of Nanoracks. “Our team has spent the last decade learning the business of space stations, understanding customer needs, charting market growth, and self-investing in private hardware on the ISS like the Bishop Airlock. Nanoracks and our team are excited to work with NASA and our friends across the world as we move forward with Starlab.”

NASA recently announced the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Destination (CLD) project to support the development of private space stations. CLD will stimulate a multifaceted LEO economy and provide science and crew capabilities in LEO before the International Space Station (ISS) retires.

Nanoracks will prime the Starlab development effort leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder of and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex spacecraft, will serve as the manufacturer and technical integrator.

The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and a state-of-the-art laboratory system to host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will be able to continuously host up to four astronauts for conducting critical science and research. - Starlab will have a volume of 340 m3, about three-eighths that of the International Space Station, and generate 60 kw of power. In August, Nanoracks hired a former NASA executive, Marshall Smith, to lead its commercial space station development efforts.

“We’re excited to be part of such an innovative and capable team—one that allows each company to leverage their core strengths,” said Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin. “Lockheed Martin’s extensive experience in building complex spacecraft and systems, coupled with Nanoracks’ commercial business innovation and Voyager’s financial expertise allows our team to create a customer-focused space station that will fuel our future vision. We have invested significantly in habitat technology which enables us to propose a cost-effective, mission-driven spacecraft design for Starlab.”

Nanoracks’ Starlab business model is designed to enable science, research, and manufacturing for global customers, and bring added value to long-duration sovereign astronaut missions. Starlab will also serve tourism and other commercial and business activities.

“Voyager Space is highly confident in the Starlab business model and its ability to be commercially sustainable and well capitalized,” says Dylan Taylor, Voyager Space Chairman & CEO. “Voyager Space sees numerous synergies leveraging the capabilities across our organization’s operating businesses, as well as within the Lockheed Martin ecosystem. We see this partnership as just the beginning of our work together.”

An estimated 10 to 12 companies submitted proposals for the first phase of the CLD program, with NASA expected to make two to four awards. Axiom Space, which has a NASA award to attach a commercial module to the ISS, has announced plans to use that module as a core of a future space station. Other companies, such as Blue Origin and Sierra Space, have either proposed space station concepts or indicated an interest in stations through job listings. 3)

Worrying about a space station gap

NASA’s goal with CLD is to stimulate development of one or more commercial space stations by the late 2020s, allowing the agency to smoothly transition to those stations from the ISS. But at a congressional hearing Oct. 21, witnesses that included a former NASA administrator warned those commercial stations might not be complete before the ISS is retired.

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Figure 1: Starlab, a commercial low-Earth orbit space station is being planned for use by 2027 (image credit: Nanoracks)

“We are not ready for what comes after the International Space Station,” said former administrator Jim Bridenstine at a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee. “Building a space station takes a long time, especially when you’re doing it in a way that’s never been done before.”

Bridenstine said he supported efforts in the Senate to extend ISS to 2030, but cautioned that the station could suffer a problem at any time before then that would effectively end the program.

He said NASA’s CLD program was not sufficiently funded. A Senate appropriations bill this week offered $101 million for the program, the amount requested. “I am telling you, sir, it is still not enough,” he said in response to questions from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). “The Senate should absolutely declare that NASA needs to tell it when is the objective to have that new station, and the Senate needs to fund the requirements to achieve that.”

He didn’t offer a dollar amount in the hearing, but did in written testimony. “Congress needs to fund NASA’s LEO commercialization efforts at $2 billion per year,” he wrote. “If Congress does this, capital markets and entrepreneurs will respond in a way that establishes America as preeminent in LEO human spaceflight at a cost significantly less than the ISS.”

The current funding falls short of even supporting NASA’s existing $140 million agreement with Axiom Space for access to an ISS port. “That $101 million that Jim is talking about, when you look at how NASA is planning to allocate it, does not meet the commitment to Axiom for 2022,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive vice president for government affairs at Axiom Space and another witness at the hearing. “The work that needs to go to the space station side of it, for the station to do the analysis that’s needed to ensure that Axiom can reach orbit and dock by 2024, is not funded completely in that amount.”

She said NASA needed to provide more details about its ISS transition plans, including specific objectives and requirements. “NASA has yet to clearly define its needs for services after the ISS ends, nor does it plan to do so for some time,” she said.

Dittmar and others at the hearing raised the prospect of a “space station gap” where the ISS ends before commercial stations are established. That could drive companies and countries to use China’s space station. She noted that U.S. companies have already complained about losing customers to China but did not name specific cases. In August, Nanoracks’ Manber said he had lost one customer to China’s station.


Starlab Highlights

• Volume: 340 m3

• Power: 60 kW

• Payload capability: 22 m3 (equivalent to the ISS)

• Astronauts: 4 (continuously crewed)




Development status

• December 8, 2021: Voyager Space, a global leader in space exploration, and Nanoracks, a Voyager Space company and the world’s leading provider of commercial space services, today announced that The Universities Space Research Association (USRA), ZIN Technologies, The Ohio State University, and the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation have been selected as the founding leadership team of the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park on the Starlab commercial space station. The GWC Science Park, established by Nanoracks, is the world’s first-ever science park in space, operating today on the International Space Station (ISS), and soon on future commercial platforms. 4)

- “While today marks a major milestone for Nanoracks and our Starlab team, the impact goes far beyond this award,” said Dr. Amela Wilson, CEO at Nanoracks. “To receive this support from NASA validates over a decade of Nanoracks’ hard work forging commercial access to space, bringing over 1300 commercial payloads from 30 nations to the ISS. This opportunity opens far-reaching possibilities for critical research and commercial industrial activity in LEO. We are honored to be selected as one of three awardees to work with NASA, and we cannot wait to bring our existing global commercial customer base to Starlab.”

- The initial $160 million award to Nanoracks is made via a funded Space Act Agreement through 2025. This initial NASA-provided funding will be supplemented with customer pre-buy opportunities and public-private partnerships. Fully owned by Nanoracks, Starlab is planned to reach initial operating capability in 2027, which ensures continuous human presence in LEO by U.S. entities. NASA will have the opportunity to purchase crew and payload services on Starlab through separate services contracts with Nanoracks.

- Nanoracks has unparalleled commercial experience on the ISS. Joined by Voyager Space’s sophisticated investment strategy and expertise in operational integration and Lockheed Martin’s engineering knowledge and strategic vision, the Starlab team presented a formidable program for the future of LEO commercialization.

- The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park. The GWC Science Park is a state-of-the-art laboratory system which will host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will have the capacity to continuously host up to four astronauts to conduct critical science and research.

- “Starlab is the confluence of Lockheed Martin’s rich space expertise and history, Nanoracks’ innovation, and Voyager’s financial savvy. This team is equipped to aid NASA on its mission to expand access to LEO and to enable a transformative commercial space economy,” said Lisa Callahan, Vice President and General Manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin.

- Nanoracks will prime Starlab’s development leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment, and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex space technology, will serve as the technical integrator of the new advanced space station.

- “Starlab’s impact on space commercialization cannot be understated,” said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO at Voyager Space. “Today we are witnessing a major economic shift, where space businesses are tangible, well capitalized, and commercially sustainable. It takes a planet to explore the universe, and we invite the global community to be part of Starlab’s success.”

• December 2, 2021: Nanoracks, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, has been awarded a $160 million contract by NASA to design its Starlab commercial space station as part of the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) Development program. Starlab will enable NASA’s initiative to stimulate the commercial space economy and provide science and crew capabilities prior to the retirement of the International Space Station (ISS). 5)

- “While today marks a major milestone for Nanoracks and our Starlab team, the impact goes far beyond this award,” said Dr. Amela Wilson, CEO at Nanoracks. “To receive this support from NASA validates over a decade of Nanoracks’ hard work forging commercial access to space, bringing over 1300 commercial payloads from 30 nations to the ISS. This opportunity opens far-reaching possibilities for critical research and commercial industrial activity in LEO. We are honored to be selected as one of three awardees to work with NASA, and we cannot wait to bring our existing global commercial customer base to Starlab.”

- The initial $160 million award to Nanoracks is made via a funded Space Act Agreement through 2025. This initial NASA-provided funding will be supplemented with customer pre-buy opportunities and public-private partnerships. Fully owned by Nanoracks, Starlab is planned to reach initial operating capability in 2027, which ensures continuous human presence in LEO by U.S. entities. NASA will have the opportunity to purchase crew and payload services on Starlab through separate services contracts with Nanoracks.

- Nanoracks has unparalleled commercial experience on the ISS. Joined by Voyager Space’s sophisticated investment strategy and expertise in operational integration and Lockheed Martin’s engineering knowledge and strategic vision, the Starlab team presented a formidable program for the future of LEO commercialization.

- The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park. The GWC Science Park is a state-of-the-art laboratory system which will host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will have the capacity to continuously host up to four astronauts to conduct critical science and research.

- “Starlab is the confluence of Lockheed Martin’s rich space expertise and history, Nanoracks’ innovation, and Voyager’s financial savvy. This team is equipped to aid NASA on its mission to expand access to LEO and to enable a transformative commercial space economy,” said Lisa Callahan, Vice President and General Manager, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin.

- Nanoracks will prime Starlab’s development leveraging over a decade of experience as the pathfinder and global leader in commercial ISS utilization. Voyager Space, the majority shareholder in Nanoracks, will lead strategy and capital investment, and Lockheed Martin, a leader in developing and operating complex space technology, will serve as the technical integrator of the new advanced space station.

- “Starlab’s impact on space commercialization cannot be understated,” said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO at Voyager Space. “Today we are witnessing a major economic shift, where space businesses are tangible, well capitalized, and commercially sustainable. It takes a planet to explore the universe, and we invite the global community to be part of Starlab’s success.”

NASA has signed agreements with three U.S. companies to develop designs of space stations and other commercial destinations in space. The agreements are part of the agency’s efforts to enable a robust, American-led commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.

The total estimated award amount for all three funded Space Act Agreements is $415.6 million. The companies that received awards are:

• Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, for $130 million (Figure 2)

• Nanoracks LLC, of Houston for $160 million (Figure 1)

• Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation of Dulles, Virginia, for $125.6 million (Figure 3)

NASA seeks to maintain an uninterrupted U.S. presence in low-Earth orbit by transitioning from the International Space Station to other platforms. These awards will stimulate U.S. private sector development of commercial, independent space stations that will be available to both government and private-sector customers.

“Building on our successful initiatives to partner with private industry to deliver cargo, and now our NASA astronauts, to the International Space Station, NASA is once again leading the way to commercialize space activities,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “With commercial companies now providing transportation to low-Earth orbit in place, we are partnering with U.S. companies to develop the space destinations where people can visit, live, and work, enabling NASA to continue forging a path in space for the benefit of humanity while fostering commercial activity in space.”

The awards are the first in a two-phase approach to ensure a seamless transition of activity from the International Space Station to commercial destinations. During this first phase, private industry, in coordination with NASA, will formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs. The first phase is expected to continue through 2025.

Blue Origin and Sierra Space have partnered to develop Orbital Reef, a commercially owned and operated space station to be built in low-Earth orbit, which will start operating in the second half of this decade. Orbital Reef teammates include Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering, and Arizona State University. Orbital Reef’s human-centered space architecture is designed to be a “mixed-use space business park” that provides essential infrastructure needed to support all types of human spaceflight activity in low-Earth orbit and can be scaled to serve new markets.

The station’s shared infrastructure will support the proprietary needs of diverse U.S. and international users, tenants, and visitors, including those representing research, industry, government, and the commercial sector. Features such as reusable space transportation and advanced automation can minimize cost and complexity to enable the widest range of users. Accommodations, vehicle docking ports, and utilities can all be scaled with growth in market demand.

Nanoracks’ commercial low-Earth orbit destination, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is called “Starlab.” Starlab is targeted for launch in 2027 on a single flight as a continuously crewed, commercial space station dedicated to conducting advanced research, fostering commercial industrial activity, and ensuring continued U.S. presence and leadership in low-Earth orbit. Starlab is designed for four astronauts and will have power, volume, and a payload capability equivalent to the International Space Station.

Starlab will host the George Washington Carver Science Park featuring four main operational departments – a biology lab, plant habitation lab, physical science and materials research lab, and an open workbench area – to meet the needs of researchers and commercial customers for commercial space activities. The station will be built with flexible growth in mind, featuring interfaces both internal and external to the spacecraft to allow Nanoracks to expand the architecture as new demand sources are identified, and new markets emerge.

Northrop Grumman’s design for a modular, commercial destination in low-Earth orbit is built on decades of experience supporting NASA, defense, and commercial programs. The design leverages flight-proven elements, such as the Cygnus spacecraft that provides cargo delivery to the International Space Station, to provide a base module for extended capabilities including science, tourism, industrial experimentation, and the building of infrastructure beyond initial design.

Multiple docking ports will allow future expansion to support crew analog habitats, laboratories, crew airlocks, and facilities capable of artificial gravity, in support of multiple customers. This Space Act Agreement will enable Northrop Grumman to provide a detailed commercialization, operations, and capabilities plan, as well as space station requirements, mission success criteria, risk assessments, key technical and market analysis requirements, and preliminary design activities. Northrop Grumman’s team includes Dynetics, with other partners to be announced.

For the second phase of NASA’s approach to a transition toward commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, the agency intends to certify for NASA crew member use commercial low-Earth orbit destinations from these and potential other entrants, and ultimately, purchase services from destination providers for crew to use when available. This strategy will provide services the government needs at a lower cost, enabling NASA to focus on its Artemis missions to the Moon and on to Mars while continuing to use low-Earth orbit as a training and proving ground.

NASA estimates the agency’s future needs in low-Earth orbit will require continuous accommodations and training for at least two crew members, as well as the ability to support a national orbiting laboratory and the performance of approximately 200 investigations annually to support human research, technology demonstrations, biological and physical science.

Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is part of NASA’s broader efforts to build a robust low-Earth orbit economy, including supporting commercial activity and enabling the first private astronaut mission to the space station. In addition to these new awards NASA selected Axiom Space in January 2020 to design and develop commercial modules to attach to the station. NASA and Axiom recently completed the preliminary design review of two modules as well as the critical design review of the module’s primary structure.

By transitioning to a model where commercial industry owns and operates the assets in low-Earth orbit and where NASA is one of many customers, the agency can save on costs to live and work in low-Earth orbit and focus on pushing innovation and exploration of the Moon and Mars through NASA’s Artemis missions.

Table 1: NASA Selects Companies to Develop Commercial Destinations in Space 6)

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Figure 2: The proposed Orbital Reef station can be expanded over time by adding more modules, but initially will be about one-third the size depicted here (image credit: Blue Origin)

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Figure 3: Northrop Grumman, one of three companies winning commercial space station development awards from NASA Dec. 2, proposes building a station leveraging work on its Cygnus cargo spacecraft and HALO module, among other projects (image credit: Northrop Grumman)



1) ”Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin Teaming to Develop Commercial Space Station,” Nanoracks Press Release, 21 October 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/
nanoracks-voyager-space-and-lockheed-martin-teaming-to-develop-commercial-space-station/

2) ”Starlab - The First Ever Free-flying Commercial Space Station,” Nanoracks, 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/starlab/

3) Jeff Foust, ”Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin partner on commercial space station project,” SpaceNews, 21 October 2021, URL: https://spacenews.com/
nanoracks-and-lockheed-martin-partner-on-commercial-space-station-project/

4) ”Nanoracks and Voyager Space Announce Founding Leadership Team for George Washington Carver Science Park Onboard Starlab,” Nanoracks Press Release, 8 December 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/
nanoracks-and-voyager-space-announce-founding-leadership-team-for-george-washington-carver-science-park-onboard-starlab/

5) ”Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin Awarded NASA Contract to Build First-of-its-Kind Commercial Space Station,” Nanoracks Press Release, 02 December 2021, URL: https://nanoracks.com/nanoracks-voyager-space-and-lockheed-martin-awarded-nasa-contract/

6) Stephanie Schierholz, Gary Jordan, ”NASA Selects Companies to Develop Commercial Destinations in Space,” NASA Press Release 21-164, 2 December 2021, URL: https://www.nasa.gov/
press-release/nasa-selects-companies-to-develop-commercial-destinations-in-space



The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (herb.kramer@gmx.net).

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