By Ryan Whitwam

The International Space Station (ISS) has been a key part of humanity’s presence in space for years, but its useful life is coming to an end. NASA and other stakeholders currently plan to end ISS operations by 2031, but what comes next? NASA is funding the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development Program (CLD) to encourage aerospace firms to build new stations, and a proposal from Blue Origin and Sierra Space just got the green light to move forward. 

The station, known as Orbital Reef, was submitted to NASA for System Definition Review (SDR) earlier this summer. This report allowed the agency to assess the feasibility of the design, and it’s good news for Blue Origin and Sierra Space — NASA believes the companies have the technology and expertise to successfully build the Orbital Reef. Initial timelines project that construction could begin in 2026, and the station could begin operating as early as 2027. 

Whereas space on the ISS was controlled exclusively by partnering space agencies, these new commercial projects will be different. “The microgravity factories and services provided by Orbital Reef have the potential to revolutionize every industry and become a major growth contributor to the U.S. and world economies,” said Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space. Other partners in the endeavor include Amazon, Boeing, and Arizona State University. 

The Orbital Reef project will have space to house 10 astronauts in a volume comparable to the final ISS configuration. There will be advanced laboratories for microgravity experiments, manufacturing capacity, and yes, accommodations for space tourists. Sierra describes it as a “mixed-use business park” in space. The image at the top is merely an early concept render, and the final design is still subject to change. Having completed the NASA SDR, the companies are now free to move to the design phase. 

Space tourism is one of the main focuses of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which is already flying people up to the edge of space in its New Shepard rocket. Future versions of the rocket could eventually reach low-Earth orbit to rendezvous with the Orbital Reef. Sierra Space is working on a space plane known as Dream Chaser that could also reach the station — you can see a few of them floating around the station in the concept renders. It’s larger than New Shepard with a payload capacity of 12,000 pounds (55,443 kilograms). It’s unclear if that vehicle will be ready any time soon, but Boeing has committed to using Starliner for crew and cargo transportation for Orbital Reef.