Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin to use inflatable components in new commercial space station

Nanoracks, based in Webster, is teaming up with Lockheed Martin to build a space station that, with the help of inflatable components, could become a commercial successor to the International Space Station.

The Starlab space station would be launched in 2027. Its usable space will be comparable to that of the International Space Station. However, its use of both sturdy metal and more compact inflatable components means Starlab could require a single launch to enter orbit, saving tens of millions of dollars. The ISS was built during numerous space shuttle missions.

“Congress has long wanted industry to step up its efforts to maintain U.S. leadership in (low earth orbit) as the ISS gradually disappears,” said Jeffrey Manber, CEO and co-founder of Nanoracks, “and this announcement shows that the industry is indeed ready, and we are eager to go. The announcement was made on Thursday.

Nanoracks was founded in 2009 by building racks – providing its namesake – that were placed inside the International Space Station to provide energy and data to research cubes. This has enabled universities and companies to carry out experiments, such as biological tests or the aging of whiskey, in microgravity at a lower cost.

The company then began attaching space telescopes, sensors and electronic components outside the station, and deployed small satellites from an airlock to the station’s Japanese experimentation module. In December, an airlock designed, owned and operated by Nanoracks was attached to the space station.

Nanoracks was acquired by Denver-based Voyager Space Holdings in May, although Nanoracks remains based in Webster.

Due to its experience on the International Space Station, Nanoracks is well connected to potential customers. It also understands how to best optimize Starlab for science and manufacturing.

Nanoracks leads the Starlab project. Lockheed Martin will serve as a manufacturer and technical integrator.

The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and a laboratory for research, science and manufacturing. . Starlab will be able to continuously accommodate up to four astronauts.

“Lockheed Martin’s vast experience in building complex space ships and systems, coupled with Nanoracks’ business innovation and Voyager’s financial expertise, enables our team to create a customer-focused space station that will power our vision for the future, ”Lisa Callahan, vice president and general manager of Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin, said in a press release.

The companies plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from private investors. They also want to participate in NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destinations project. This project aims to stimulate the development of free-flight space stations where NASA and the private sector can be clients.

The first space stations will need NASA’s support – via seed funding and intentions to be a client – as public approval, the companies said. They did not say whether Starlab’s future would depend on its selection for NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destinations project.

This project is part of NASA’s efforts to find a commercial successor for the International Space Station. This station is licensed for human habitation until September 30, 2024, and Congress is expected to extend it until 2030.

“All of us in the industry want to make sure there is no gap between space stations,” Manber said.

But in recent years, Congress has not fully funded NASA’s demands for commercial development of low earth orbit.

To put a new station into orbit this decade, Nanoracks shelved a more ambitious space station plan. He had previously announced his intention to build space stations from the upper stages of rockets that are released into space.

Manber would still love to create these stations, but he said that will come later as the technology is tested and proven.

Nanoracks isn’t the only company in the Houston area building a commercial space station. Axiom Space was selected by NASA in January 2020 to develop a commercial module that will attach to the International Space Station. This first module is expected to be launched in 2024. Then, the company will launch additional modules that can be added to this first module to provide housing, research and manufacturing areas. When the International Space Station retires, the Axiom Station would break away and become its own space station.

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Richard V. Johnson