Orbital Reef project faces uncertainty
Blue Origin, the aerospace company founded by billionaire Jeff Bezos, expects to break up a corporate partnership formed years ago to build a commercial space station, reassigning staff and changing leadership as it adapts to more urgent priorities, according to several people familiar with the changes.
The company had planned to build a commercial space station called Orbital Reef, in collaboration with Sierra Space, a spinoff from defense contractor Sierra Nevada Corp. The project was envisioned as a “business park in space” that would function as a microgravity science laboratory, a destination for tourists, and a hub for other commercial activities in low Earth orbit.
However, the partnership has soured in recent months, with feuding and disagreement between the companies’ managements, three sources said. Blue Origin has reassigned a majority of its employees working on Orbital Reef to other programs, such as its moon lander contract with NASA and a closely held in-space mobility project, the sources said.
The shakeup of the Orbital Reef team shows the rocky state of industry plans to build a private replacement to the two decade-old International Space Station (ISS), the work of multiple government space agencies that has cost more than $100 billion.
Blue Origin seeks new direction under new CEO
The expected breakup of the partnership comes as Blue Origin is undergoing a major leadership change, with longtime Amazon executive Dave Limp replacing Bob Smith as the company’s CEO by the end of the year. Bezos, who started Blue Origin in 2000, has been looking to inject a sense of urgency into the company as some important programs face steep hurdles.
The company’s suborbital tourist rocket, New Shepard, has been grounded for more than a year after a 2022 accident. Delays are also mounting in the development of its bigger rocket, New Glenn, an expected commercial workhorse that will mark Blue Origin’s first, long-awaited step into Earth’s orbit.
In addition, the company is locked in a legal battle with NASA over its decision to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for the Human Landing System (HLS) program, which aims to land astronauts on the moon by 2024. Blue Origin had bid for the contract as part of a team that included Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.
The company has also faced criticism from some lawmakers and experts for its aggressive lobbying and litigation tactics, which have been seen as detrimental to the overall progress of the US space program.
Sierra Space to continue with Orbital Reef
Despite the expected split with Blue Origin, Sierra Space said it will continue with its plans to build Orbital Reef, which it expects to deploy between 2025 and 2030. The company said it has secured $1.4 billion in funding from private investors, of which a third will go towards its contributions to Orbital Reef: an inflatable habitat that forms the livable core of the space station’s design.
Sierra Space also said it has partnered with other companies and organizations, such as Boeing, Genesis Engineering Solutions, Arizona State University, and the University of Texas at El Paso, to provide various services and capabilities for Orbital Reef.
The company said Orbital Reef will be able to accommodate up to 10 people at a time, and will offer customers a range of options, such as leasing space, buying space, or paying for services on demand. The company said it hopes to attract customers from various sectors, such as research, manufacturing, entertainment, education, and tourism.
A Blue Origin spokesperson said Sierra Space will remain a partner on Orbital Reef but declined to say in what capacity.