NASA has been encouraging private industry to replace the aging ISS with a commercial successor for quite a while now, and while Axiom Space has already expressed its intent to do so eventually, a new consortium made up of Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin now say they’ll create the “first-ever free-flying commercial space station,” with planned operation to begin in 2027.
The new space station will be called “Starlab,” a name that recalls the third-ever U.S. space station, Skylab. Starlab will host a crew of four astronauts, and will be much smaller than the ISS — offering about a third of that station’s total pressurized space for human occupancy. The smaller size means that the group building the station expect it to be able to be sent up to orbit in a single launch, rather than piecemeal in parts like the existing ISS and Chinese space station.
This team has ample experience in in-space operations, with Nanoracks (which is now majority owned by Voyager) having designed and built a number of elements used today in the ISS. Voyager will be providing strategic guidance and capital investment to the project, while Lockheed Martin will be the primary manufacturer of Starlab, as well as the integrator putting together the various technical pieces of the puzzle.
The primary component of the station will be an inflatable habitat module created by Lockheed, alongside a docking node for visiting cargo and crew ferry spacecraft, as well as a robotic arm like the one found on the space station for assisting with cargo and payload manipulation outside of the station.
Potential crew will include public and private researchers, manufacturers and scientists, as well as commercial customers like space tourists, the company has said. NASA’s intent with private stations is to become one client among many, in order to make continuous occupation of space more sustainable for the agency while making the most of public funds.