A Closer Look at Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef Commercial Space Station

Orbital Reef commercial space station (Credit: Orbital Reef)

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 Blue Origin’s Orbital Reef 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: Orbital Reef
Partners: Sierra Space, Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, Arizona State University
Initial Operation: Second half of 2020’s
Crew: 6
NASA Funding: $130 million

Project Description: Orbital Reef will offer research, industrial, international, and commercial customers the cost competitive end-to-end services they need including space transportation and logistics, space habitation, equipment accommodation, and operations including onboard crew. Orbital Reef will be operated as a “mixed use business park” in space. Shared infrastructure efficiently supports the proprietary needs of diverse tenants and visitors.

NASA Level of Confidence Ratings

Selection Statement Excerpts
Signed by Phil McAlister. NASA Director of Human Spaceflight

Technical Evaluation

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

Its significant strengths included robust proposed research capabilities to support NASA and customer research goals and flight demonstration of subscale modules.

Its strengths included a 6 person crew operations concept, which provides greater access at initial operations; an architecture that enables inclusion of an isolated exploration test bed; designing systems with maintainability in mind, which increased the likelihood of sustainable CLD operations; large volume and redundancy across critical systems, which provides fault tolerance and flexibility to meet customer goals; the use of a Common Berthing Mechanism (CBM) interface, which provides a large hatch for increased accommodation of larger payloads and crew; the inclusion of a robotic arm for external operations, which increases maintenance flexibility; the use of proven Amazon logistics approach, which increases likelihood of successful ground hardware management supporting crew and payload services; a comprehensive crew training proposal; an on-orbit maintenance crew; its overall risk management process that leverages human spaceflight lessons learned; early prototyping and mock-up included in its design; strong external thermal control design and risk assessment; a strong emergency response plan; and a docking demonstration prior to baseline, which builds confidence in docking.

Its significant weaknesses included low technically mature elements including inflatable modules and single person spacecraft, which are significant risks to meeting the proposed schedule; proposing a regenerative closed loop Environmental Control & Life Support System (ECLSS), which is a scale up of existing ISS systems and carries significant schedule risk; and complex integration between its partners and complex launch and assembly. Its weaknesses included zenith facing external payloads are obstructed; proposed 3-D printing of spares in microgravity; and use of legacy Guidance, Navigation, & Control (GN&C) hardware, which carries obsolescence risks.

Business Plan Evaluation

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

Its significant strengths included an ambitious business strategy and strong, relevant experience of Blue Origin and its partners and suppliers.

Its strengths included a strong marketing plan; a significant level of private investment for the base period; a proposed schedule that exceeds NASA’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) and Initial Operating Capability (IOC) goals; and use of existing development resources.

Its significant weaknesses included seeking more funds than NASA stated is available. Its weaknesses included failing to propose business milestones with meaningful success criteria; unclear roles of its partners in raising financing; unrealistic early revenue estimates while ISS still serves users; no plan to manage supplier cost overruns; and schedule risk due to technology development.

Blue Origin Updates

Blue Origin updated its Space Act Agreement (SAA) milestones to include five significant testing and demonstration activities during the term of the SAA, taking its activity through to Critical Design Review. Its SAA did resolve the identified significant weakness of seeking more funds than NASA stated was available by adjusting its milestone payments and resolved the identified weakness of failing to propose business milestones with meaningful success criteria by including two business milestones with meaningful success criteria.

Summary

Blue Origin’s proposal for its Orbital Reef leverages the space flight experience of Boeing and Sierra Nevada both in architecture and in operational approaches. Orbital Reef’s ambitious design provides the largest amount of habitation space and research volume of the three proposals and critical system hardware redundancy that exceed most of NASA’s goals, including an initial crew capability of six and accommodating stretch goals of artificial gravity and exploration analog missions.

Orbital Reef will also include facilities for a broad range of life and physical science applications that are relevant to NASA and other customers. Its proposed use of the Common Berthing Mechanism interface will enhance the ability of Orbital Reef to accommodate large payloads. Other technical strengths in the proposal included having a dedicated maintenance crew, a comprehensive crew training concept, and innovative logistics approach.

Blue Origin’s business plan meets most of the goals as stated in the Announcement with a moderate likelihood of successful execution. The company has an aggressive schedule that requires significant development work, so it is not clear whether it can achieve operations on the proposed timeline. However, the proposal otherwise is strong given its marketing approach and very experienced suppliers who understand human-rated space system development.

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 Critical Design Review 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 Preliminary Design Review level of design maturity.