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Sierra Space teams up with Blue Origin to build its Life space station

Proposed Orbital Reef space station

Capitalism in space: Sierra Space and Blue Origin today announced [pdf] that they are forming a consortium of space companies to build a space station they dub Orbital Reef. From the press release:

The Orbital Reef team of experts brings proven capabilities and new visions to provide key elements and services, including unique experience from building and operating the International Space Station:

  • Blue Origin – Utility systems, large-diameter core modules, and reusable heavy-lift New Glenn launch system.
  • Sierra Space – Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) module, node module, and runway-landing Dream Chaser spaceplane for crew and cargo transportation, capable of landing on runways worldwide.
  • Boeing – Science module, station operations, maintenance engineering, and Starliner crew spacecraft.
  • Redwire Space – Microgravity research, development, and manufacturing; payload operations and deployable structures.
  • Genesis Engineering Solutions – Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions.
  • Arizona State University – Leads a global consortium of universities providing research advisory services and public outreach.

I suspect that this deal is actually telling us that Jeff Bezos is spreading some of his Blue Origin money to help finance Sierra Space’s work. The deal also appears to be an effort to generate work for Blue Origin’s not-yet-launched New Glenn rocket and Boeing’s not-yet launched Starliner capsule.

The release says nothing about target dates, but the overview [pdf] on the Orbital Reef website says they are aiming for the second half of this decade.

While the success of such a project can only increase the competition and lower the cost to orbit, thus making the settlement of space more likely, this announcement reeks of the same kind of high-minded promises that came with Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander: Big plans by the best and most established space companies, with little firm commitment by these companies to actually build anything.

Compared to the Blue Moon lunar lander project, however, this project has one very significant difference that could make it real. Orbital Reef is not being touted in order to win a government contract. It is being touted as a commercial station for private customers. Such a project will require these companies to either invest their own money, or obtain outside investment capital, to build it. To make money they can’t sit and wait for their customers to pay for it, since customers never do that (except the government). They need to first build it.

Meanwhile, the BE-4 engine is not yet flight worthy, so that Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket remains no closer to launch, even though it is now approaching two years behind schedule.

Genesis cover

On Christmas Eve 1968 three Americans became the first humans to visit another world. What they did to celebrate was unexpected and profound, and will be remembered throughout all human history. Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, tells that story, and it is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, both with a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit. If you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and the author gets a bigger cut much sooner.

The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs."--San Antonio Express-News


  • Skunk Bucket

    Wait, they used the words “Orbital” and “Blue Origin” in the same sentence? Okay, so it’s almost certain that Bezos and Company will eventually iron out some of their issues and start launching stuff into orbit, but it would be nice to see them concentrating on that, rather than announcing grandiose space station proposals and filing lawsuits against those who have actually accomplished the feat.

  • mpthompson

    Sounds good and I wish them luck, but I suspect Robert’s take on this may be accurate.

    Big plans by the best and most established space companies, with little firm commitment by these companies to actually build anything.

    I guess time will tell. It would be nice to see some ambitious space projects come to fruition.

  • JhonB

    They won’t build anything. They will just sue anyone that does build stuff and wins a contract. I think they have more lawyers than engineers.

  • Patrick Underwood

    Actually I believe it *is* an effort to extract more taxpayer money, through NASA’s CLD program.

  • Tom

    Looks like Bigelow Aerospace’s inflatable module design has been taken to heart by Sierra Space. I hope Elon Musk reaches out and throws some business their way .. Bigelow that is.

  • David M. Cook

    Single Person Spacecraft, or Pod? I can see myself in one right now… “Open the Pod bay doors, Hal.” “I‘m sorry Dave, I can‘t do that.” I hate when that happens.

  • Jeff Wright

    Dream Chaser likely has Stucky to thank, for he is now part of Blue Origin-having been dropped by Barnam Branson.

    Here is where you need the brashness of a pilot who will blow past BO suits and secretaries to be heard: “sir, sir! You can’t go in-” BLAM!

  • Questioner

    This seems to be a complex and expensive system similar to the ISS.

    SpaceX, on the other hand, can easily and cost effective derive an entire space station from the lunar lander the company is working on, which is a variant of Starship.

    Where does Jeff Bezos finally come up with a new, innovative, breakthrough idea?

  • pawn

    This definitely has potential. The improvements in tech and lessons learned from the ISS need a platform. If this is more than just promises of money it will get some engineering juices flowing. Hopefully it will get some synergy going between the dispirited entities. Bezos doesn’t need to make more money at this point and if he wants, he has the chance to become a master architect (real Legacy) by buying his way into a thread where he and Musk won’t be a such obvious odds.

    But I think Bob is right on in his assessment. Hard to keep a (useful) team working on something that has no goal, witness NASA manned space for the last few decades.

  • Phil Wilson

    Unimpressed. In 2nd half of this decade an orbiting Starship would contain far more volume at a fraction of the cost and price.
    Besos et. al. lack vision.
    With balls and vision they could potentially one up SpaceX by building a rotating space station with zero gravity, lunar gravity and Mars gravity levels. Sure SpaceX could counter with 2 tethered Starships but the visual and competing Orbital Reef folks would still have a unique offering.

  • they could potentially one up SpaceX by building a rotating space station with zero gravity, lunar gravity and Mars gravity levels.

    The Gateway Foundation – although they don’t appear to be actually doing anything, their ideas are good.

  • Edward

    Questioner wrote: “This seems to be a complex and expensive system similar to the ISS.

    I don’t think that these companies have enough money to spend on an expensive system. I doubt that they want to get too complex, either, as complexity becomes difficult and expensive to maintain. ISS is insanely complex and turned out to be far too expensive.

    SpaceX, on the other hand, can easily and cost effective derive an entire space station from the lunar lander the company is working on, which is a variant of Starship.

    Although SpaceX may use a Starship as a space station, I don’t think that this is the business that they want to be in. It is not nearly as lucrative as their internet communication Starlink business, and it distracts from the goal of colonizing Mars with a million people.

    SpaceX will need to test Starship for mission lengths that simulate Mars voyages, and they may leave a Starship in orbit that could be used as a space station in the middle of the decade, rather than the latter half of the decade, but I think that this industry will eventually be dominated by other companies. It looks like Sierra Space and its Orbital Reef team, as well as other companies, are the real contenders for this domination. I expect that a great demand for space stations will quickly develop for the various uses that the Orbital Reef team listed in its announcements: “Seasoned space agencies, high-tech consortia, sovereign nations without space programs, media and travel companies, funded entrepreneurs and sponsored inventors, and future-minded investors all have a place on Orbital Reef.

  • sippin_bourbon

    We knew that Bezos wants New Glenn to be man-rated for flight. If I recall they had a space capsule plan they had proposed originally, but I never even saw a drawing, let alone pics. Partnering with Sierra Nevada (SNC) on this is actually smart. Blue Origin (BO) no longer needs to build the space vehicle. They can limit themselves to the Launch Vehicle. And now maybe, a way to get more money and investors for New Glenn.

    And if successful, they are positioned better for future NASA bids.

    In the meantime, they are going full capitalist and building a “business park” in space, and seeking investors.

    The comment above about using the lessons learned from ISS seems smart. Lets hope they learned what not to do that will raise operating costs. Putting things in orbit is getting cheap(er). Operating them long term is another. If they have not learned how to do it without the massive daily costs that ISS has, then it will forever be prohibitive for a business to invest.

    Someone else commented that it won’t spin, and have artificial gravity. I have seen this on other threads too.
    I believe that R&D in micro-gravity is the point, so why build something that will spin.
    Will it be super cool to finally have a spinning station, sure.
    But that also brings other complexities and higher costs. Two things that Space Reef does not need if it is to achieve reality.

    As for if it will ever happen?
    I have grown up seeing proposals for space vessels, lunar stations, new LEO space stations. So many never got beyond paper.
    So I have been taught to lower expectations.
    On the other hand, inserting the word “commercial” and removing the government factor seems to allow things to actually materialize.
    I am cautiously optimistic.
    If I find that this is really just a bid to try and get NASA money, then I see it going no where.

  • Edward

    sippin_bourbon asked: “I believe that R&D in micro-gravity is the point, so why build something that will spin

    1) A spinning space station can have a de-spun free-fall section in order to perform the micro-gravity research, and attach the solar arrays, docking ports, etc.

    2) Different levels of the spinning station can allow for research at different “gravity” levels.

    3) Living quarters can be in the higher gravity sections, preventing bone mass loss, eye difficulties, and pooling of blood in the legs when astronauts return to Earth.

    4) In the more distant future, people returning from the Moon, Mars, or deep space missions can spend time readjusting to Earth gravity level.

    5) Lessons learned can be applied to larger spinning structures, such as space-based colonies.

    The biggest problem to overcome is how to make a spinning station without making it complex and expensive, and allowing for multiple docking ports for manned and cargo ships.

  • sippin_bourbon


    None of those points are invalid, but:
    Your final comment regarding complexity is actually an argument against your first two points. Complexity.
    Complexity equals higher cost. Keep increasing the cost, and the station will never be built. Make the design more and more complex, and it will never get off paper, let alone the ground. Start simple. Build from there. If they are going to sink money into a station it will be for the R&D.

    Your third point states the health benefit to people manning the station. You state the obvious, but it is counter to why they are there to start with. They want zero G so they can test and refine the processes. They want vacuum to improve purity of the products. They want cold temperature extremes because it is cheaper and easier to maintain that cold in orbit.

    The fourth and fifth points valid, but we also know people can spend months up there without major impact to health. A year.. that is another story.

    I am not opposed to spinning stations. I disagree with the push to start with that (commercially speaking, I disregard the gov owned stations). Step by step. Don’t let better be the enemy of good enough.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “They want zero G so they can test and refine the processes.

    Not only should a de-spun section be achievable without making it “NASA” complex, but a spinning space station need not be the only kind of space station. There can be non-spinning free flyers near the spinning station or completely independent of it. There are many varieties of solutions to research, manufacturing, and living in space.

    Not realizing that there are multiple solutions or different desires for the use of space is similar to declaring that the Space Shuttle will be the sole source of American launches into orbit.

    You asked why someone would build something that would spin. I answered with what your claimed were valid reasons. Then you complained that they were contrary to the desirable aspects of on-orbit facilities. Why not push for better facilities, where scientists can perform long-term experiments, lasting longer than six months, and where health effects may be reduced? The whole idea of getting away from government space and into commercial space is to get what we want, not what the government is willing to do; to do it for less cost and greater return on investment; and to finally start getting space products to market, making use of space for Earthly living. We should be eager for improvement and innovation, not skeptical that it is too soon. We have already seen the waste of virtually half a century of advancement in space exploration and use due to relying on government to do it for us.

    Now is the time to make the grand plans and to boldly turn them into reality. If not now, when? I just hope that the home of the brave still has enough brave people bold enough to do it. If not us, who?

  • sippin_bourbon


    “Then you complained…” They are called counterpoints.

    “You asked why someone would build something that would spin.”
    No, I asked specifically in the context of the this plan.
    A non-spinning station is what they appear to desire.
    Complexity and extra cost is counter to their enterprise.
    Also, as a commercial enterprise, it is their money. Their plan.
    They will build it to suit themselves, not what we think it should be.

    “We should be eager for improvement and innovation, not skeptical that it is too soon. ”
    “Now is the time to make the grand plans and to boldly …”
    An analogy: You want them to build a sky scraper, with express elevators to the top, but right now they are planning a 1 to 2 story building, and are still figuring out how big to make the parking lot.

    Bold plans are great.
    Realistic ones are better.
    If it does not show profit or an ROI, or fails completely, no one will want to try it in the future.

    My hope is that they succeed, and other commercial enterprises see the success and try to repeat it. Surely, one of these will build a spinning station because they will need it for their purposes. Or with the free flying sections you mentioned. But the key here is it will be what they need, not what we desire.

    Most of us here push for the capitalist’s approach to space. That also means that we do not get to call the shots.

  • Edward

    You wrote: “They will build it to suit themselves, not what we think it should be.

    I didn’t say that I think it should be that way. You asked. I answered. And you are still complaining. When somebody decides it is time for one, they will build it as simply and inexpensively as they can, and probably for one or more of the reasons I gave, and they may even have more of their own reasons to build it.

  • sippin_bourbon


    I post here, because I enjoy good discussion, and enjoy learning from others. However:
    If all you can do is call my counter arguments “complaining” and continue to talk down to me, then I would ask that you stop engaging my posts.

    Thank you and have a good day.

  • sippin_bourbon

    Speaking of space stations, I recently watched the Russian film Salyut 7.

    Great film work, and good acting.

    To say they took some liberties with the story to increase the drama would be fair, but I still enjoyed the film.
    The Russians do have a very different style of film making.

  • Edward

    People in NASA management who are too timid, lack imagination, and lack innovative drive are why the ISS was expensive and complicated. Congressmen who are the same timid way caused the Shuttle replacement — Orion, Constellation, and SLS — to be a regression backward into an inferior form of Apollo-Saturn rather than learning from the mistakes with the Shuttle and going forward with better ideas, reusability, and low costs. To apply your analogy: people who felt safe building one- or two-story buildings rather than skyscrapers with express elevators are why we are so far behind in space. To continue your analogy, urban sprawl has certain advantages, but skyscrapers have other advantages, and we should use both solutions, where necessary, not timidly plodding along figuring out the sizes of parking lots.

    The X-Prize was won because a bold person proposed it and bold, imaginative, and innovative people took up the challenge. The X-Prize objectives were bold, not realistic. No one knew how to do what was asked, and Diamandis didn’t have the prize money, but he boldly imagined and set the goal, and another bold person, Ansari, came and supplied the prize money. This jump-started not only the space tourism industry but the reusable rocket idea, causing Bezos and Musk to innovate their own bold and imaginative boosters.

    Low-cost access to space is happening now, because these two bold people innovated reusable, landable, low maintenance booster stages, and others are beginning to follow. Low-cost small spacecraft are growing in popularity because a couple of professors were bold enough, imaginative enough, and innovative enough to invent the cubesat, a concept that boot-strapped the small satellite industry that some satellite operators had been trying to get started since 1985, or earlier. Because of them, we now have the small-satellite launch industry that many had hoped would happen ever since Orbital Sciences came along.

    Bold, imaginative, and innovative people continue to make space travel and applications less expensive. Bold turns out to be much better than realistic. Bold is how we advance; realistic is how we stagnate. Bold put us on the Moon in a decade; realistic kept us stuck in low Earth orbit for the next half century.

    The timid did not tame the west. The timid didn’t make America great. The timid are not the ones who created American ingenuity, American exceptionalism, or democracy in America. It was a bold person who changed the limitations of the Outer Space Treaty by developing the Artemis Accords, and the bold are the ones joining that alliance. The same spirit that created a great America and spread prosperity around much of the world will also make space great, spreading even more prosperity to the world as well as the solar system.

    Fortunately, we still have bold people who are willing to make skyscrapers with express elevators, because it would be a shame for the timid people to continue to waste our time and resources pondering parking lot sizes.

    If all you can do is call my counter arguments ‘complaining’ and continue to talk down to me, then I would ask that you stop engaging my posts.

    First you ask a question and I give answers that you agree with. Then you argue my answers. How is that not complaining about my answers? If you didn’t want the answers, why did you ask the questions? How is answering your questions talking down to you? And how is your complaint about my characterization of your complaints not complaining?

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