Airbus Defence and Space has teamed up with Voyager Space, a Denver-based company, on its Starlab commercial space station project. Airbus will provide technical design support and expertise for the project, which will be capable of hosting up to four astronauts at a time. The project was announced in October 2021, in partnership with Lockheed Martin, and was one of three NASA Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development (CLD) awards given to Voyager Space in December 2021. The $160m Space Act Agreement is intended to support the design work on Starlab as NASA transitions from the International Space Station (ISS) to commercial space stations by the end of the decade.
The collaboration between Airbus and Voyager Space will expand Starlab’s ecosystem to include the European Space Agency (ESA) and its member state space agencies, allowing them to continue microgravity research in low Earth orbit. Jean-Marc Nasr, executive vice president of space systems at Airbus Defence and Space, said the partnership was “an important step in making Starlab a reality, providing a foundation for long-lasting European and American leadership in space”.
As NASA’s international partners on the ISS consider how they will utilise commercial space stations operated by American companies, concerns have been raised about the potential for direct payments from European governments to American companies for the use of these stations. However, the involvement of companies from Europe and other ISS partners could alleviate these concerns. Frank De Winne, head of ESA’s European Astronaut Center, said that one option for ESA would be to fund the development of a European crewed vehicle that could service commercial space stations.
Airbus is not the first European company to be involved in a commercial space station project. Thales Alenia Space, a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo, signed a memorandum of understanding with Axiom Space in December 2020 to develop a commercial space station module. The module is expected to be launched in late 2024 and will be the first of several modules that will eventually be joined together to form a full space station.
As NASA transitions from the ISS to commercial space stations, it is expected that commercial space stations will become more prevalent. These stations will be operated by private companies, rather than space agencies, and will be used for a variety of purposes, including scientific research, satellite launches and space tourism. The involvement of companies like Airbus and Thales Alenia Space in these projects will help ensure that European countries have a strong presence in the commercial space industry.