(CN) — The next phase of commercial space travel is coming soon to a low-earth orbit near you.
Blue Origin, the private aerospace company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, announced plans Monday to launch a commercial space station, named Orbital Reef, sometime in the “second half of this decade." The station would be a “mixed use business park in space,” according to a statement, offering “anyone with the opportunity to establish their own address on orbit" — although the rent for such an address is likely to be exorbitant.
If launched as promised, Orbital Reef will likely be used by governmental space agencies, private space tourism companies and a variety of researchers and entrepreneurs.
“We will expand access, lower the cost, and provide all the services and amenities needed to normalize space flight,” said Blue Origin vice president Brent Sherwood in a statement. “A vibrant business ecosystem will grow in low Earth orbit, generating new discoveries, new products, new entertainments, and global awareness.”
The new space station will be co-owned by Blue Origin and Sierra Space, with a host of other partners including Boeing and Arizona State University. Initially, the station will have enough room for just 10 people. But the station’s design will allow it to expand by adding on modules.
“It’s a commercial real estate play,” said Jessica Rousett, the deputy director of Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative. “Investors can invest in different modules that the tenants will pay for. It is modular, and it can grow to meet marketing demand.”
According to Blue Origin, its new space station will be slightly smaller than the International Space Station and float slightly higher, at about 310 miles above the earth. Its crew will take in 32 sunrises and sunsets each day.
Blue Origin’s announcement comes just four days after a similar one from Lockheed and Nanoracks, which announced plans to build their own commercial space station named Starlab. And this past February, Axiom Space won a $140 million grant to develop modules that could connect with the International Space Station. NASA plans on retiring the ISS by the end of the decade and has been encouraging companies to develop commercial space stations in the future by awarding them funding.
This year marks a turning point in the history of space travel, which up until recently was dominated by sovereign nations. This summer, business magnate Richard Branson and five others took part in the first private spaceflight. Nine days later, Bezos and three others blasted into space on Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket, and 90-year-old "Star Trek" star William Shatner took a ride on Blue Origin’s rocket this month. Those flights were short: Bezos’s lasted for just 10 minutes, Shatner’s for 11 minutes, while Branson’s took about an hour and a half. Orbital Reef would make it possible for space tourists to experience weightlessness for days at a time.
Rousett said Orbital Reef will “change the cost structure for those who want to access the space. This model is designed to lower those barriers.”
But some doubt Blue Origin’s promise to give everyone their own space address.
“They say the capacity is going to be 10 people,” said Jordan Bimm, a space historian who teaches at the University of Chicago. “That, to me, says the capacity is pretty limited as to what you could do up there. I see this as a proof of concept."
He added: “It could be a step toward making orbital space more domestic, a place that doesn’t require special training. This could be the entry point to that future. But I have severe doubts. I suspect this is going to be a wealthy preserve, that space will remain an elite place.”
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