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Blue Origin wants to build a space station for ‘exotic hospitality’

Not content with 10-minute tourism rides to the edge of space, Jeff Bezos now wants to take a giant leap all of his own and build a commercial space station in low-Earth orbit.

Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Amazon boss Bezos in 2000, revealed the ambitious plan at the International Astronautical Congress in Dubai on Monday, October 25.

Similar to the International Space Station (ISS), Blue Origin’s orbiting outpost, called Orbital Reef, would host astronauts from around the world and be used to conduct science experiments in microgravity conditions. But a slick video (below) released by the company suggests the station would also be used as in-space manufacturing facility and provide accommodation for space tourists as part of an “exotic hospitality” service, as Blue Origin is calling it.

Announcing Orbital Reef - Your Address in Orbit

Blue Origin isn’t taking on the task alone, with Colorado-based Sierra Space and aerospace giant Boeing, among other companies, planning to join forces to help create what’s being described as a space-based “mixed-use business park.”

Orbital Reef would be about as large as the ISS and host up to 10 people at a time. And with the ISS now 20 years old and likely to be decommissioned within the next 10 years, Blue Origin’s facility would arrive in time to replace the aging satellite, with deployment hoped for toward the end of this decade.

Commenting on the plan, John Mulholland, Boeing VP and program manager for the ISS, described Blue Origin’s plan as an exciting project as it doesn’t duplicate the exiting space station, “but rather goes a step further to fulfill a unique position in low Earth orbit where it can serve a diverse array of companies and host non-specialist crews.”

But the challenges to make Orbital Reef a reality are immense. Cost is the obvious one, with Blue Origin and Sierra Space yet to release an estimate of how many billions of dollars it will take to achieve their shared goal. Some of the funding could come from NASA, which is looking at proposals from a number of companies for an ISS replacement. But Blue Origin appears intent on moving ahead with its plan with or without help from NASA.

Also, Blue Origin is yet to perform an orbital flight, with its single-stage New Shepard rocket only going as far as the Kármán line 62 miles above Earth before returning to Earth minutes later. The company is, however, preparing the maiden test flight of New Glenn, its first orbital rocket, for some time next year. New Glenn is a heavy-lift rocket and so could be used to carry sections of Orbital Reef into orbit.

Blue Origin said it wants to provide “an end-to-end service: transportation and logistics, leased space for any purpose, assistance with system hardware development, robotic and crew-tended operations and servicing, and habitation amenities.”

It said that experienced customers would be able to “simply link up their own modules through standard interfaces,” while newbies would have access to specialist help to enable them to realize their goals.

It added: “Orbital Reef expands access, lowers the cost, and provides everything needed to help you operate your business in space. A growing commercial ecosystem in Earth orbit will unlock the potential for new discoveries, unimagined products, and new forms of entertainment, and promote a new level of interconnected global awareness.”

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Trevor Mogg
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