The retirement of the ISS will open a new side of the aerospace industry to the private sector; a breach in which Jeff Bezos is already planning to enter.
Blue Origin today unveiled its latest major project: building its own space station. This structure, called Orbital Reef, will be a multipurpose space. It can thus serve as a laboratory, a hotel … But in any case, there is no question of making it a shared sanctuary in the service of science, like the International Space Station.
After all, we are in the realm of Jeff Bezos, and this infrastructure will naturally be leased to the highest bidder. In short, a commercial and private version of the ISS. “En as a leading commercial destination in low earth orbit, Orbital Reef will provide the necessary infrastructure to expand economic activity and open up new markets in space.”, Can we read in the press release.
From a technical point of view, Orbital Reef will be a platform fully modular and standardized, theoretically compatible with current technology. This would allow, for example, a research institution to take its own laboratory in the form of a module. It would then only be necessary to tie it down to work in orbit, while taking advantage of the rest of the infrastructure.
Because this is the main particularity of this station. In practice, the set is apparently designed around humans. Passengers will thus have a space on a human scale, which contrasts with the confined corridors of the ISS. If we rely on the 3D renderings offered by Blue Origin, the structure also seems much more open and functional. It will apparently be subdivided into common areas, workstations and private spaces in a fairly organic way.
In short, this represents a fundamental paradigm shift. The ISS was designed with a strictly functional approach; the objective was for the astronauts to be able to carry out their mission in safety, period. Comfort was far from being the priority. Even today, the occupants must be satisfied with fairly rudimentary arrangements during their mission. But as this old lady nears retirement, the new generation of space stations seems determined to put people at the heart of their concerns, which will certainly give rise to some very interesting innovations.
But as it stands, this human-centered approach is above all Jeff Bezos’ first commercial argument. For Blue Origin, it is a way of attracting different customer profiles, from researchers to industry and visitors. Because in addition to individuals, Blue Origin also pays close attention to a whole range of institutions whose “experienced space agencies“, the “high-tech consortia“, the “media and travel agencies”, “Sponsored inventors and investors”, And even“sovereign nations without a space program”.
The first space real estate agency after ISS?
Blue Origin has announced a fairly ambitious work rate; the firm wants to start operating Orbital Reef “from the second half of the decade”. A timing decidedly not trivial; indeed, this corresponds to the period when theISS is supposed to take her retirement once and for all, between 2024 and 2028.
However, the role of NASA will change quite radically on that date. The agency expects private actors to take over with regard to infrastructure management. From a commercial and industrial point of view, it is a phenomenal opportunity that Jeff Bezos felt. We can therefore expect that the firm will seek to position itself as a whole first real estate agent of this new space industry. With Orbital Reef, Blue Origin therefore hopes to take pole position in this race, and if possible outrun everyone from the first corner.
And that could earn him very, very big money. One only has to observe SpaceX to be convinced. If Elon Musk’s business has grown so phenomenally, it is because it has jumped at a similar opportunity to seize the space transportation market. Blue Origin is lagging behind on this aspect, but could perfectly compensate if it became the privileged infrastructure manager of the space market.
So it will be important to follow the development from the program. Because within a few years, it could well change the balance of power in the small world of aerospace. It will also be interesting to see if SpaceX decides to challenge its best enemy on this front, or if Elon Musk prefers to cement its dominant position in transport.