The race for a commercial space station is officially a-go, with businesses poised for a new privately funded post to orbit Earth by the end of the decade.
Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin are collaborating to develop a free flying commercial space station known as Starlab. While London’s Space Entertainment Enterprise (SEE) has teamed up with Axiom Space to build their own commercial station – though more ambitious plans are expected to launch out of the woodwork.
“The race to open up low earth orbit is providing a huge number of opportunities for companies like ours to develop exciting new projects which take advantage of such a different realm,” SEE co-founder Dmitry Lesnevsky told City A.M. yesterday.
“The winners will be those businesses who are at the forefront of exploiting the latest technology to achieve in reality what would have been science fiction a couple of decades ago.”
These platforms will be replacing the International Space Station as NASA looks to retire it after three decades in orbit, bowing to private sector capital as the US agency pushes funding towards its Moon and Mars missions.
Seraphim Space chairman Will Whitehorn told City A.M.: “This is a sensible move by NASA because the International Space Station takes up a huge amount of [its] budget…it’s very old technology, it’s heavy, it’s impervious to space debris and technology has now been developed which would be better.”
Whitehorn, who dipped his toes in the sector when investigating space for Virgin in the 1990s – before the birth of Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit – had been pitched the concept of a commercial space station when it really was just “science fiction”.
A hotelier who lived on the outskirts of Las Vegas came up with the concept of an inflatable space station, which would be part hotel, in an idea that was far beyond his time, said Whitehorn.
But there wasn’t a way to get people there cheaply, explained Whitehorn, so the idea never left the ground.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Branson have revolutionised the cost of getting to space, which means a whole range of industrial activities are going to move to space over the next five years, the chairman of the London-listed space capital firm predicts.
“It’s a full-scale industrial revolution and we’re at the very start of it.”
Business strategy consultant at Satellite Applications Catapult, Hamid Soorghali explained that the new space industry is at a point where it “needs to have revenue” – which is why the sector has flown open the doors to tourism. “This commercialisation of space is really taking off, we are seeing many more companies entering this market,” he added.
Musk’s SpaceX has even tabled plans for the world’s first commercial spacewalk this year, onboard of its ambitious Starship rocket – which analysts anticipate could ‘make or break’ Space 2.0.
“We endeavour to achieve the highest Earth orbit ever flown in addition to conducting the world’s first commercial spacewalk and testing of Starlink laser-based communication,” billionaire and founder of payment processing company Shift4, Jared Isaacman, who will be on board, said in a statement on Monday.
Beyond increasing the sector’s profitability, Linklaters partner Julian Cunningham-Day added that these commercial space stations could give the private sector a chance to participate in research alongside government agencies like NASA, “offering fresh opportunities for research and development for these industry players”.
“As the commercial space sector develops, with ever-greater industry involvement in diverse areas from satellite constellations to in-space entertainment and commercial rocket launches, it will also be interesting to see how governments, inter-governmental organisations and legislation evolve to keep pace.”