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Starlab Set to Launch on SpaceX’s Starship

A render showcasing the large diameter habitat of the Starlab space station, and its power and propulsion bus.
Credit: Starlab Space

Starlab Space, a joint venture of Voyager Space and Airbus Space and Defense, announced Jan. 31 it reached an agreement with SpaceX to launch the consortium’s Starlab space station on the currently under development Starship system. The companies did not discuss further details of the terms of the agreement or provide an expected launch date. However, a spokesperson for Starlab Space said the company was “confident that Starlab would be launched before the decommissioning of the International Space Station, currently scheduled for 2030”, preventing the possibility of a low Earth orbit spaceflight gap. 

Voyager and Airbus announced January 9 that they had finalized the Starlab Space joint venture agreement between the two organizations, and had moved into the next phase of work for the project. Voyager had been working with Airbus since last January on the design of Starlab after ending an earlier partnership with Lockheed Martin, forcing the aerospace giant out of the consortium.

The companies designed Starlab to be launched on a single flight, instead of the dozens of assembly flights required for previous modular stations like Mir or the ISS. The station features a large habitation and laboratory module with a smaller service module attached to it for power and propulsion. The 8 meter main module is one of the first stations designed with a post-ISS standard in mind, taking advantage of large modules to minimize construction flights and enable immediate usability for the station once on-orbit. 

Starlab selected SpaceX’s Starship system to launch their station in one flight, negating the long build up and assembly process seen with modular platforms.
Credit: David Diebold

In a statement, Voyager Space highlighted the progress the consortium had made on the development of their station proposal. “The Starlab team has advanced through multiple program milestones over the past year, including completion of the Systems Requirements Review, System Definition Review, Human in the Loop testing, and more. Starlab Space recently announced a teaming agreement with Northrop Grumman and plans to collaborate with the European Space Agency. Additional Starlab partners include Hilton Hotels and The Ohio State University.” The consortium has made a series of moves to secure both legacy aerospace partnership and new commercial investment, hoping to help generate further advancements in the rapidly developing space sector. 

The size of Starlab has made it unlikely that it could launch on anything other than SpaceX’s Starship. In a presentation at the Space Tech Expo Europe conference in Bremen, Germany, last November, Manfred Jaumann, vice president of low Earth orbit and suborbital programs at Airbus, said the module has a diameter of more than eight meters, nearly double the current 4.3 meter diameter of ISS modules. That is larger than what can be accommodated on vehicles in service or under development other than Starship and NASA’s Space Launch System.

Blue Origin, Boeing and Sierra Space’s Orbital Reef project, aim to compete alongside Starlab’s station for the Commercial LEO Destinations award from NASA – becoming a commercial successor to the nearly 30 year old ISS. Axiom Space, which won an award to construct their station on orbit with the ISS, has begun manufacturing of their first habitation element for their upcoming Axiom Station. While Axiom Space is not eligible for CLD funding due to its previous award, NASA and other agencies have expressed interest in utilizing whatever commercial stations are available to further research and exploration goals.  

By relying on commercial organizations to manage and develop LEO outposts for continuous human exploration and research, the agency hopes to be able to move resources to support exploration objectives as part of the Artemis Moon to Mars program. As of 2024, the CLD program has not incentivized massive commercial investment in LEO infrastructure, with Northrop Grumman’s team dropping out from the program and signing onto Starlab – citing financial challenges with commercial stations. Participants in the program have also cited regulatory and liability uncertainties for commercial space stations that need to be worked out, and future models for station use to be determined.

Regardless, Starlab’s agreement with SpaceX sends a strong signal – the consortium is potentially ready to begin looking towards a launch date, and lofting a successor to the venerable International Space Station in a single launch could potentially alleviate many concerns about the future of crews in LEO.

Edited by Scarlet Dominik

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