The era of private space stations is officially here as Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin announce plans to launch a commercial station in 2027, but it's just the next logical step for developing the new space economy, the companies say.
"One of our key theses for the industry is that the last 10 years have been defined by building access to space, the next 10 years will be about destinations," Voyager CEO Dylan Taylor said.
The new space station, dubbed "Starlab" in homage to the third-ever U.S. space station, Skylab, will be composed of an inflatable habitat module, a docking node and a robotic arm. The companies anticipate robust demand from both the public sector and private industry, though Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber emphasized, "the core of Starlab is science."
While Starlab could eventually also host tourists, he added that it's not a tourism-first project. "Space tourism is what captures the headlines, but to have a sustainable business model, you really do need to move beyond that," he said.
The trio of companies have submitted Starlab to NASA as a bid under the agency's Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations project, which will allocate up to $400 million in contracts to private companies developing space stations. Any such project will likely require intensive public investment, but Taylor said the funding is just as important as a sign to the world that NASA is interested in maintaining a presence in low Earth orbit, particularly in light of the impending deorbiting of the International Space Station.
Manber echoed his sentiments. "We do not want a space station gap," he said. "Everybody in the industry, in the community, understands that we cannot have a period where the United States lacks a space station, or space stations, in low Earth orbit."
Overall, however, private financing will be key, and this is where Voyager comes in. The company, which acquired majority control over Nanoracks this year, will be overseeing financing and allocating capital for the project.
"Realistically, there is not enough funding from Congress," Manber said. "Those days have gone. This is a commercial project."
Many things remain unclear regarding the future of the LEO economy, especially how companies and public agencies plan to balance standardization across design with keeping competitive. Taylor suggested a consortium approach could be one way to create standards for a handful of key technologies. Investment from NASA could also help drive commonality across habitation systems, Lisa Callahan, Lockheed Martin's VP of commercial civil space, said in an interview with TechCrunch.
"NASA as a customer has unleashed this extraordinary revolution in space transportation," Manber said. "Building on the success that NASA had with cargo, building on the success of commercial crew, one can anticipate that with the markets interested in space, we're going to see the same thing with smaller private space stations."