A Closer Look at Nanoracks’ Starlab Commercial Space Station

Starlab, a commercial low-Earth orbit space station is being planned for use by 2027. (Credit: Nanoracks)

NASA has released the selection statement that lays out the space agency’s reasoning for awarding Nanoracks, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman a total of $415.6 million to develop plans for private space stations under the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program. The facilities are designed to maintain a permanent U.S. presence in Earth orbit when the International Space Station (ISS) is retired in 2030.

In this story, we’ll look at the Nanoracks’ Starlab station. The project summary is drawn from publicly available information. Excerpts from the selection statement follow. Long paragraphs in the latter have been broken up to improve readability. Acronyms have been spelled out for the sake of clarity.

Project Summary

Name: Starlab
Partners: Voyager Space, Lockheed Martin
Initial Operation: 2027
Crew: 4
NASA Funding: $160 million

Project Description: 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.

NASA Level of Confidence Ratings

Selection Statement (Excerpts)
Signed by Phil McAlister, NASA Director of Human Spaceflight

Technical Evaluation

For the Technical Approach evaluation, Nanoracks received a Level of Confidence rating of White (Moderate).

Its significant strengths included leveraging many technically mature designs, which increases likelihood of meeting schedule; and proposing a single-launch capability to reach its initial operating configuration, which significantly reduces assembly complexity and allows for integrated ground testing.

Its strengths included a modular design to allow for an evolutionary path in support of exploration analog missions; proposing more than 2 crew members for initial operations; incorporating a Biological Centrifuge as a step toward the artificial gravity stretch goal; inclusion of a robotic arm; proposing a reconfigurable general purpose lab bench system; and building a Starlab ground analog lab to support payload providers.

Its significant weaknesses included its ambitious proposed launch date using a low technically mature inflatable habitat technology; and the greatly overestimated level of Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS) closure proposed to be achieved at initiation and greatly underestimated projected resupply needs.

Its weaknesses included the volume of the exploration analog is too large to meet the 100m3 stretch goal for deep space transportation conditions; lack of detail to understand CLD sparing and maintenance plan beyond use of heritage hardware; lack of a plausible ram facing payload to meet external payload goals; and lack of a high-level design overview of its Guidance, Navigation, & Control (GN&C) system.

Business Plan Evaluation

For the Business Plan evaluation, Nanoracks received a Level of Confidence rating of White (Moderate).

Its significant strengths included a strong business strategy to develop the LEO economy; a very thorough and convincing marketing strategy; a very significant level of private investment; and a very strong marketing plan that supports revenue estimates.

Its strengths included a CEO with strong relevant experience; a schedule that exceeds NASA’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and initial operating capability goals; early operations involvement, which reduces risk; and having suppliers with the necessary workforce, facilities, and relevant experience.

There were no significant weaknesses identified.

Its weaknesses included unclear reporting structure; its proposed Program Manager is currently under a restriction from representing back to NASA; lack of detail on its financing plan; unrealistic revenue estimates while ISS is still serving users; risk of cost increases by its prime contractor; schedule risk due to technology development; and potentially obsolete and unavailable payload facilities.

Nanoracks Updates

Nanoracks updated its Space Act Agreement (SAA) milestones to include six significant testing and demonstration activities during the term of the SAA, taking its activity through to Critical Design Review (CDR). Its SAA did not resolve any of the identified weaknesses.

Summary

Nanoracks brings a wealth of knowledge and experience integrating payloads on ISS and they have partnered with leaders in the space industry with realized flight and hardware experience which provides confidence that Nanoracks’ proposal could meet NASA’s CLD goals. Nanoracks’ modular design concept and the proposed ability to meet all of NASA’s CLD technical goals, except for minimal Government Furnished Equipment (GFE) and stretch goals, except for adequate exploration analog crew volume, is of great benefit.

Nanoracks’ partnership with Lockheed Martin provides a significant knowledge base in spacecraft architecture, and the team provides a robust assessment on technical risks and mitigations throughout the proposal. However, the team’s lack of experience with inflatable technologies and the proposed advanced application of the concept as a full habitation module carries some development risk. Given the amount of technology development work that will be required to realize a fully operational commercial LEO destination as proposed by Nanoracks, there is moderate confidence that the concept could be realized by the proposed launch date of 2027.

Its proposal meets all the business goals in the Announcement, including non-government customers, profitable operations, significant non-NASA investment, and early operations; but with uncertainty in financing, early revenue, and adequacy of development time. Nanoracks also proposed a broad marketing strategy built on experience in flying customer payloads to ISS and owning/operating ISS commercial augmentations, which is important for encouraging development of a LEO economy, a key objective of the CLD Program.

Nanoracks and Blue Origin have proposed six testing and demonstration milestones and five testing and demonstration milestones, respectively, during the term of their SAAs, which I considered significant for addressing NASA’s goal of early demonstrations of hardware, subsystems, and key technologies.

I also noted that both Nanoracks and Blue Origin have updated their SAAs to propose reaching CDR during the term of this SAA – Nanoracks for both its spacecraft element as well as its ground analog element and Blue Origin for its overall Orbital Reef destination – which significantly exceeds the goal of achieving at least a PDR level of design maturity.