Last month, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) and Blue Origin disclosed that they were partnering to create a privately owned and operated space station in low Earth orbit.
Called Orbital Reef, the station is the centerpiece of a plan aimed at providing end-to-end space services for diverse users that the partners intend to make the “premier commercial destination” in low orbit.
Orbital Reef is the latest step in the commercialization of space, a trend that has been actively encouraged by NASA as the International Space Station approaches the end of its useful life later in this decade.
It is also a huge bet for Eren and Fatih Ozmen, the billionaire owners of SNC (a contributor to my think tank) who have built a small military contractor into one of the biggest privately-owned enterprises in the federal marketplace.
Privately-held businesses as big as SNC aren’t common in the defense business, but they are very much a part of the emerging commercial space economy, where other billionaires such as Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk have committed their fortunes to building commercial enterprises.
The Ozmens signaled their commitment to the concept in April, when they established a subsidiary within SNC called Sierra Space that seeks to be a leader in space commercialization.
SNC Chairwoman & President Eren Ozmen predicted at the time that the company’s space business, which had already increased revenues tenfold since its inception in 2008, would grow another tenfold during the current decade to $4 billion in sales.
That kind of eye-popping growth is not unusual for SNC, which has a multi-decade track record of wringing rapid revenue increases from acquisitions, but prior growth has resulted mainly from buying companies with unique positioning in established markets.
Sierra Space is a rather different idea, because it is grounded in a vision of the human future beyond Earth.
As Sierra Space states on its homepage, “We envision a future where humanity lives and works in space, on moons, and on distant planets. People are married, children are born, families are raised, businesses are built and new civilizations thrive.”
So this is not your typical business plan.
As Eren Ozmen observed in a 2018 Forbes cover story, “Space is more than a business for us.”
However, with partners like Blue Origin, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, it could become a very big business for SNC.
Part of the challenge faced by Sierra Space President Dr. Janet Kavandi, herself a former NASA astronaut, is how to distinguish her enterprise in an increasingly crowded marketplace.
The company has participated in over 500 space missions and supplied thousands of space systems and components to customers around the world, but what makes Sierra Space different are some genuinely unique, signature products.
One such product is the Dream Chaser, the only space vehicle NASA is currently funding that has the capacity to maneuver within the atmosphere and land on a conventional runway.
Conceptually similar to a scaled-down Space Shuttle, the intellectual property for Dream Chaser was acquired by the Ozmens from a canceled NASA program and then transformed with subcontractor Lockheed Martin into a composite structure capable of lifting more than any other space vehicle in existence.
Dream Chaser is designed to be lofted into orbit by the new Vulcan Centaur rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.
Once in orbit, it offers versatility unmatched by any other space vehicle.
Sierra Space has a contract from NASA to use Dream Chaser in executing at least six unmanned cargo missions to the International Space Station, with crewed missions to other destinations to follow.
One of those other destinations is likely to be Orbital Reef, which will feature another unique Sierra Space product in its design.
Called the Large Integrated Flexible Environment (LIFE) habitat, it is an inflatable orbital station that can accommodate four astronauts for long-duration missions and up to 12 for briefer stays.
The Vectran fabric weave providing its outer layer is stronger than steel; combined with additional underlying layers, it is tough enough to withstand micro-meteorite impacts from outside the habitat and pressurization stresses from inside.
Because it is only inflated to its full 300 cubic-meter volume after reaching orbit, the LIFE habitat is much easier to launch into orbit than the pieces of the International Space Station were.
Its modular design allows multiple habitats to be joined together to fashion the kind of volume envisioned for Orbital Reef (one LIFE module provides a third of the volume of the International Space Station).
With a closed-loop life support system, LIFE can sustain in-space operations for extended durations, perhaps even being used for manned missions to Mars.
Combining LIFE with Dream Chaser creates unusual economies for sustaining human activities in space—the kind of economies needed to build the business case for commercial enterprises in orbit.
Sierra Space has many other technologies that have proven themselves over time, but its two best-known products epitomize the Ozmen philosophy of taking risks to offer price and performance breakthroughs competitors can’t match.
Nobody can say with any certainty today how fast the commercial space economy will evolve, but one thing seems certain: SNC and the Ozmens are going to be key players as this new chapter in human innovation unfolds.