Breaking up is hard to do, especially when there’s a commercial space station on the line. Northrop Grumman is abandoning its plans as a solo contractor to develop a replacement for NASA’s International Space Station and is instead partnering with Voyager Space to work on Starlab.
Voyager revealed the new collaboration in a press release yesterday, which will see Northrop working with Voyager’s subsidiary NanoRacks. The companies will develop “fully autonomous rendezvous and docking technology” to leverage Northrop’s Cygnus spacecraft for cargo shipments to Voyager’s Starlab space station, which is being constructed in a joint venture with Airbus.
Previously, rumors were swirling that Northrop was putting an end to its contract with NASA to construct a space station that would help fill the void left behind by the ISS at the end of its life. This new partnership confirms that Northrop is indeed forgoing its plans to build a space station independently, but is instead joining another NASA-funded project, with the space agency expressing approval over the new partnership.
“This is a positive development for the commercial low Earth orbit destinations effort,” said NASA director of commercial space Phil McAlister in an agency release yesterday. “Northrop Grumman has determined that its best strategy is to join the NanoRacks team, and NASA respects and supports that decision.”
NASA previously awarded Northrop Grumman with a $125.6 million contract under the Space Act Agreement to build a commercial space station as announced in December 2021. Blue Origin and NanoRacks were also awarded similar contracts at the same time. According to yesterday’s NASA press release, the agency awarded Northrop $36.6 million of the total $125.6 million for the solo space station project thus far.
The news of Northrop’s involvement is good news for the growing momentum surrounding Starlab. According to Voyager’s press release, Northrop’s Cygnus spacecraft will perform resupply missions of pressurized cargo over an initial five-year window once Starlab is in orbit. Voyager describes Starlab as a “fully functional science park” that is planned to launch in its entirety in 2028, hosting a rotating crew of four at a time. The station will reportedly feature crew lodging from Hilton, the American hotel and hospitality company.
NASA announced in 2022 that the storied era of the International Space Station is set to conclude, with plans to decommission the ISS by 2030. After the crew departs, NASA will initiate maneuvers to guide the ISS to its final resting place near Point Nemo in the Pacific Ocean, the location most remote from any landmass. In September, NASA put out a request for proposals from U.S.-based private space companies to design a spacecraft to help with that deorbiting plan.