NASA has been encouraging private industry to replace the aging ISS with a commercial successor for some time now, and although Axiom Space has already expressed its intention to do this, a new consortium of Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin are now announcing that they will create the “very first commercial free-flight space station”, which is expected to begin operation in 2027.
The new space station will be called “Starlab”, a name reminiscent of America’s third space station, Skylab. Starlab will accommodate a crew of four astronauts and will be much smaller than the ISS, providing about a third of the station’s total pressurized space for human occupation. The smaller size means the group building the station expects it can be sent into orbit in a single launch, rather than piecemeal in parts like the existing ISS and the Chinese space station.
This team has extensive experience in space operations, with Nanoracks (now majority owned by Voyager) having designed and built a number of elements used today in the ISS. Voyager will provide strategic advice and capital investments to the project, while Lockheed Martin will be the primary maker of Starlab, as well as the integrator bringing together the various technical pieces of the puzzle.
The main component of the station will be an inflatable habitat module created by Lockheed, alongside a docking node for visiting cargo and crew spacecraft, as well as a robotic arm like the one found at the station. space to help with cargo and payload handling outside the station.
The potential crew will include public and private researchers, manufacturers and scientists, as well as commercial clients such as space tourists, the company said. NASA’s intention with the private stations is to become one client among many, in order to make the continued occupancy of space more sustainable for the agency while making the most of public funds.