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NASA awards $130 million to Orbital Reef space station

December 2, 2021

ASU leads the space station's University Advisory Council

Orbital Reef, a partnership between Blue Origin and Sierra Space that includes a consortium of universities led by Arizona State University, was selected today by NASA through a funded Space Act Agreement to design a commercially owned and operated space station in low Earth orbit (LEO) in the amount of $130 million.

NASA’s Commercial LEO Development program aims to shift NASA’s research and exploration activities in LEO to commercial space stations, helping stimulate a growing space economy before the International Space Station is retired. The Orbital Reef team also includes Boeing, Redwire Space and Genesis Engineering Solutions.

Orbital Reef’s shared infrastructure will support the proprietary needs of diverse U.S. and international users, tenants and visitors, including those representing research, industry, government and the commercial sector. Features such as reusable space transportation and advanced automation can minimize cost and complexity to enable the widest range of users. Accommodations, vehicle docking ports and utilities can all be scaled with growth in market demand.

“We are pleased that NASA supports the development of Orbital Reef, a revolutionary approach to making Earth orbit more accessible to diverse customers and industries,” said Brent Sherwood, senior vice president of advanced development programs for Blue Origin. “In addition to meeting the ISS partners’ needs, the Orbital Reef mixed-use space business park will offer reduced costs and complexity, turnkey services and inspiring space architecture to support any business. No one knows how commercial LEO markets will develop, but we intend to find out.”

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative and principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission, said, “We’re grateful to receive NASA’s support for Orbital Reef’s shared mission. The University Advisory Group is ready to embark on this new challenge — to create guidelines for ethical research and manufacturing, to assemble experts in every field, and to create community connections to Orbital Reef that include science, engineering, art, history, philosophy and religion — all aspects of the human experience.”

Consortium members have already met to begin their work. Comprising 15 leading academic institutions with expertise in space and microgravity research, the University Research Advisory Council will focus on academic community needs, stimulate research, advise novice researchers, evolve standards of conduct and lead STEM outreach.

University Advisory Council members include:

  • Arizona State University.
  • Colorado School of Mines.
  • International Space University.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Oxford University.
  • Purdue University.
  • Southwest Research Institute.
  • Stanford University.
  • University of Central Florida.
  • University of Colorado at Boulder.
  • University of Florida.
  • University of Michigan.
  • University of Texas at El Paso.
  • University of Texas Medical Branch.
  • Vanderbilt University.

These partners bring together all the expertise to develop, integrate and operate Orbital Reef’s transportation and destination systems and services:

  • Blue Origin leads development of the station’s infrastructure, large-diameter metal modules, last-mile space tug and reusable heavy-lift New Glenn launch system.  

  • Sierra Space leads development of the LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) and small-diameter metal node modules, and Dream Chaser spaceplane for crew and cargo transportation with runway landing anywhere in the world. 

  • Boeing leads development of the station’s operations and maintenance and science module, and Starliner crew capsule.

  • Redwire Space leads microgravity research payload development and operations, large deployable structures and the Orbital Reef digital twin. 

  • Genesis Engineering Solutions develops the Single Person Spacecraft for routine operations and tourist excursions. 

  • Arizona State University leads the University Advisory Group, a global consortium of universities for research advisory services and public outreach.

Orbital Reef’s vision is to provide an “address in orbit” for anyone. Early customers may include NASA, its traditional ISS partners and non-traditional governments and agencies needing easier access to space. The station will grow as markets grow, including commercial industries such as research and manufacturing, media and entertainment, sports and gaming, and adventure travel and tourism.

For more information, visit

Arizona State University press contact: Sandra Leander, sandra.leander@asu.eduTop image courtesy of Orbital Reef

Sally Young

Senior Communications Specialist , Interplanetary Initiative

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Office space: ASU, Blue Origin to create business park in orbit

October 25, 2021
Editor’s note: This story is featured in the 2021 year in review.

A mixed-use business park in space may sound like a daydream of the distant future, but Arizona State University is partnering with Blue Origin and other space industry leaders to create one by the end of this decade.

Dubbed Orbital Reef, the pioneering space station will make its home in low Earth orbit and offer the infrastructure to support new markets in space, including research, manufacturing, travel, education and exploration. And it’s not just for specialists.

“Throughout the 20th century, space exploration has been the realm of the hero, the unreachable astronaut, the one special person. But with Orbital Reef, we will make it accessible for so many more people who can participate in many different ways,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, vice president of ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative and principal investigator of the NASA Psyche mission. “This is our moment to bring everyone into space exploration.”

Just like Earth-side business parks, Orbital Reef will provide a shared facility that different entities can lease and use to serve research, government, industrial, international and travel customers. Elkins-Tanton likens it to a village, where people from many organizations can carry out their activities separately and interact with each other. By offsetting the complexity and cost of living and working in low Earth orbit, Orbital Reef opens the space economy to a wider array of small businesses, projects and nations.

The Orbital Reef destination will be backed by industry leaders and teammates including Sierra Space, Boeing, Redwire Space and Genesis Engineering.

ASU’s Interplanetary Initiative leads the Orbital Reef University Advisory Council — a consortium of more than a dozen international universities. The group will establish guidelines and standards of conduct for ethical research on the station, provide consulting for those new to space research, channel academic research onto Orbital Reef, inform the academic user experience aboard the station, and conduct STEM outreach and education programs.

“Something that we're very passionate about at Arizona State University and Interplanetary Initiative is bringing together universities, government and the private sector for a positive human space future,” said Elkins-Tanton, who is also a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We've been practicing this for a long time, so bringing together a network like this to support Orbital Reef is right in our wheelhouse.”

Learn more about the economic and scientific opportunities that space offers from ASU Professor Jim Bell.

The Interplanetary Initiative is building a positive future of humans in space that benefits society both on- and off-planet.

“Shifting our mindset to see ourselves as a team of crewmates aboard a space vessel — Earth — opens the door to shared purpose and better cooperation,” said Jessica Rousset, deputy director of Interplanetary Initiative.

The initiative works to identify key needs for human success in space and then form interdisciplinary teams to solve them. This includes collecting insights from the humanities and social sciences as well as traditional STEM fields and inviting diverse voices to help set the course toward an equitable tomorrow. Additionally, the initiative creates public-private partnerships so that any group or industry can be part of shaping this space future.

The initiative is also home to a 6,800-square-foot lab that functions as a research and development workspace. There, external partners connect with ASU students, faculty and staff to design, build and test space hardware and software. Giving students the chance to gain experience working with this technology supports the development of a robust workforce for the growing space industry — and forges a path for more endeavors like Orbital Reef.

At the heart of the Interplanetary Initiative’s current research are questions like: How can we sustain healthy communities in space? How will we manage shared resources in space, from satellites and space debris to minable asteroids? How can we better connect humans and robots in space exploration? And how would humankind react to the discovery of alien life? Finding answers will help prepare humans for a more active role in space, inform Orbital Reef and inspire the university consortium’s efforts.

Learn more about Elkins-Tanton’s path to becoming a planetary scientist and what we can learn from the asteroid Psyche.

Ultimately, Orbital Reef will have significant implications not just for science or business, but for the people of this planet.

“Humans are compelled to explore; it’s in our bones. We will become an interplanetary species,” Elkins-Tanton said. “We have an opportunity to use the inspiration of space exploration to take better care of the Earth by involving all of society and driving technological advances that will help solve problems here below.”

Read more about how ASU is forging connections to advance the next chapter of the space industry.

The Interplanetary Initiative is partially supported by Arizona’s Technology and Research Initiative Fund. TRIF investment has enabled thousands of scientific discoveries, over 950 patents, 328 new startup companies and hands-on training for nearly 39,000 students across Arizona’s universities. Publicly supported through voter approval, TRIF is an essential resource for growing Arizona’s economy and providing opportunities for Arizona residents to work, learn and thrive.

Top image: Rendering of the Orbital Reef space station. Courtesy of Blue Origin Media

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist , ASU Knowledge Enterprise