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Starlab space station

What is the Starlab space station?

Starlab is a commercial space station set to be deployed in low Earth orbit (LEO) by 2030.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) defines LEO as having an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 mi) or less. The International Space Station (ISS) is currently in LEO space.

As a space station, Starlab will be a habitat where humans can reside for limited periods in the microgravity of LEO. Starlab will provide a safe location for humans to survive in LEO, with breathable air, food, potable water and energy generation capabilities.

When complete, Starlab will serve multiple types of users and organizations including space agencies, researchers and companies. The space station will include two modules -- one for a laboratory and habitation and a second for power generation and propulsion.

Starlab is a commercial venture as part of a response to the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program from NASA. CLD is part of an effort to ensure that there is an ongoing presence in the

LEO space capacity after the ISS is decommissioned. The ISS was built by NASA and its global partners and has been continuously occupied since the year 2000. The ISS is set to be retired and decommissioned in 2030.

The Starlab space station is a joint venture between Voyager Space and its Nanoracks division working together with Europe-based Airbus.

What is the purpose of Starlab space station?

The Starlab space station will serve multiple purposes for commercial ownership, the U.S. government and humanity.

The Starlab space station has several key objectives including the following:

  • Ensuring continuous human presence in LEO. Starlab will ensure humans maintain a continuous presence in LEO, especially after the decommissioning of the ISS.
  • Enabling ongoing microgravity research. Starlab will help transition and continue microgravity science and research that had been conducted on the ISS.
  • Supporting a global customer base. The station will serve a diverse global customer base that includes space agencies, such as NASA and the European Space Agency, as well as researchers and commercial companies.
  • Researching and manufacturing capabilities. With its state-of-the-art laboratory system, Starlab will host comprehensive research, science and manufacturing capabilities, for a variety of experiments and production activities in LEO.
  • Offering space tourism. Starlab could support space tourism which could further diversify the use of space and create new economic opportunities.
  • Advancing science and technology. Using the unique environment of LEO space, Starlab can contribute to scientific knowledge and technological advancements to benefit life on Earth.
  • Extending and continuing space commercialization. Starlab's purpose is also about the continued commercialization of space. NASA opened the market for launch capacity, with vendors including SpaceX, helping to bring astronauts and cargo to space. With the CLD program and Starlab, the commercialization of space will be extended to the first commercial space station ever built.

History of Starlab space station

Several key milestones in the history of the Starlab space station have occurred over several years.

2021

  • March: NASA announced the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program as an initial exploration into building new space stations to eventually replace the ISS.
  • October: Voyager Space and its Nanoracks division along with Lockheed Martin respond to the request for services from the NASA CLD program.
  • December: NASA awarded a $160 million contract to Voyager and its operating subsidiary Nanoracks for the design and development of Starlab. This funding was part of NASA's efforts to develop free-flying space destinations alongside other projects led by Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman.

2022

  • September: Voyager Space announced that hotel operator Hilton Worldwide would be participating in the Starlab project, helping with interior design and living quarters.

2023

  • January: Airbus announced that it will join with Voyager Space to develop Starlab, bringing the European aerospace giant into the project. The move came after a design change to have a metallic habitation module, instead of an inflatable one that was originally going to be built by Lockheed Martin.
  • June: The project completed an initial NASA-led Systems Requirements Review (SRR) that evaluated the technical, functional and performance attributes of the Starlab design.
  • August: The Airbus and Voyager Space partnership was redesigned to become a joint venture known as Starlab Space LLC.
  • October: Northrop Grumman decided to abandon its space station project and joined the Starlab project to help develop an autonomous docking system for resupply missions.

2024

  • January 31: Voyager Space and Airbus Space and Defence, through their joint venture Starlab Space, announced an agreement with SpaceX to launch the Starlab commercial space station on a Starship rocket.

Development and design of Starlab space station

There have been multiple iterations on the design of Starlab space station, long before the project ever got off the ground.

The first proposed version of the station, which included the participation of Lockheed Martin, had an inflatable module for habitation and experiments. The inflatable module was to be attached to a service module that would provide propulsion as well as solar panels for energy generation. Starlab's diameter will be about 26 feet (8 meters) and it has about half the volume of the ISS. The initial design had an estimated volume of approximately 340 cubic meters.

The initial proposal was modified to exclude the inflatable module, which is the point at which Lockheed Martin's involvement in the project was minimized and Airbus came on as a partner. The new design uses metal instead of an inflatable model for habitation and experiments. The volume of the new metal design expanded Starlab to 450 cubic meters. Starlab will also include a docking port for visiting spacecraft as well as a robotic arm for servicing and cargo management.

A core part of the Starlab is the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park which is a commercial laboratory in space. The GWC will include science departments such as plant habitation, biology and physical science as well as a materials research lab and an open workbench.

The plan is for the station to be able to comfortably support up to four astronauts.

Starlab space station launch and its future

Starlab is being designed to be deployed to LEO in a single launch. That approach stands in stark contrast to the way the ISS was deployed which took multiple launches over several years.

The SpaceX Starship rocket with a heavy-lift capacity will carry out the launch. SpaceX is designing the Starship to be more capable than its current generation of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch rockets, both in terms of range and capacity. The SpaceX Starship is the same rocket that SpaceX will use as its main launch vehicle to reach the Moon and Mars.

The Starlab launch is tentatively scheduled for 2028, though a specific date has not been determined. The goal is to have Starlab deployed and operational before the ISS is decommissioned in 2030.

This was last updated in March 2024

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