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NanoRacks outpost
Artwork shows a Centaur upper stage that’s been converted into an outpost. (NanoRacks Illustration)

Don’t call them commercial space stations, or gateways, or portals. NanoRacks is laying claim to a different moniker for its new breed of refurbished orbital modules.

“We like ‘outposts,'” NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber told GeekWire.

The space outposts that Manber has in mind, at least to start out with, are converted Centaur upper stages — the rocket boosters that sit atop the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket.

NanoRacks’ concept calls for refurbishing the insides of a Centaur upper stage after it’s finished delivering an Atlas payload to its proper orbit, so that it can be reused as an orbital habitat. The work could be done by a crew on the International Space Station, or by a robot.

MDA US Systems, a business unit of Maxar Technologies, has already worked out a procedure for robotic remodeling:

It’s a new frontier for NanoRacks, a Texas-based venture that was founded nine years ago. The company’s main line of business has been to get commercial payloads into low Earth orbit, and primarily to the International Space Station. Some of those payloads have been delivered on standardized equipment racks, which is how NanoRacks got its name.

Over the past couple of years, NanoRacks has been lifting its sights: Last year, it struck a deal with NASA and Boeing to provide the space station with its first commercial air lock. And now its grand plan for a series of orbital outposts is coming together.

An outpost could be used as an add-on module for the space station, or as a standalone spacecraft. Either way, Manber sees the concept as a contributor to the Trump administration’s goal of commercializing space operations in low Earth orbit by the mid-2020s.

“NanoRacks is positioned very well to help the United States move into the next chapter with commercial outposts,” he said. “We don’t want to be dependent on any one company — not NanoRacks, not Axiom, not Bigelow, not Boeing, not Lockheed, not anybody else out there. What I look forward to is a number of companies that will emerge, with the administration’s support, each with a different architecture.”

Converting an upper stage into an orbital outpost isn’t exactly a new idea: As far back as the 1960s, NASA considered doing something similar with Saturn V upper stages after launch, but the process of clearing out the fuel tanks, and then retrofitting the stage for habitation, was considered too unwieldy and expensive.

Instead, NASA went with Skylab, an upper stage that was converted into a space station before launch.

Now NanoRacks is reviving the on-orbit conversion concept with new technology, as one of six options being supported by NASA’s NextSTEP deep-space habitat initiative. The Texas-based company has moved on to Phase 2 of the effort, in partnership with United Launch Alliance, Space Adventures and Maxar.

NanoRacks previously referred to the concept as “Ixion,” and called its team the Ixion Initiative Team. That name harks back to the son of the war god Ares in ancient Greek mythology. But as of today, Ixion has been nixed. Instead, the first outpost will be christened Independence-1, Manber said.

“It’s sort of a coming together of things,” he explained. “NanoRacks is really in the outpost business now. None of the previous terms really worked for us. They didn’t work for anybody. … They’re outposts. We’re going to go forward with that, with Independence-1, and hopefully there’ll be Independence-2.”

Outpost cutaway
A cutaway view shows how the propellant tanks of a Centaur upper stage could be converted into a habitable space outpost. Solar arrays, insulation and a layer of material to guard against micrometeoroid impacts would be installed on the Centaur before launch. (NanoRacks Illustration)

The next big task for NanoRacks’ NextSTEP effort would be to build a full-size, on-the-ground prototype. Manber said the plan that’s currently under discussion with NASA calls for taking a Centaur upper stage that didn’t pass the required checks for spaceflight, and refitting it as a demonstration module at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.

“We expect that we should be able to reach a successful conclusion in the coming month or two,” he said. Building the on-the-ground prototype would show NASA that NanoRacks and its partners can address all of the project’s technical challenges.

At the same time, Manber is talking with other potential customers about building a commercial outpost. “I would say that we’ll have news on that this year,” he said.

Centaur upper stages won’t be around forever: ULA is already deep into the development of its next-generation Vulcan rocket. Initially, the Vulcan will use the Centaur as its upper stage. But eventually, ULA will switch over to a new type of refuelable upper-stage rocket known as the Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES.

The coming transition doesn’t faze Manber. “ACES may be a little better as an outpost than the Centaur,” he said. Spent stages from NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System, which is currently under development, could conceivably be converted as well.

So what could an outpost be used for? The likeliest application for Independence-1 would be to add to the International Space Station’s real estate. But outposts also could serve as space hotels, or as platforms for orbital research and manufacturing.

“I look forward to being in partnership with the commercial cargo folks, going to different orbits, different inclinations,” Manber said. “Let’s break free of having one orbit, one inclination.”

On the commercial side, NanoRacks is focusing on low Earth orbit, but Manber said NASA’s NextSTEP program could open a path to deep space as well: “If we could show that it’s possible, maybe we could supply the warehouses, or the factories, or the fuel depots” for a space complex in lunar orbit or beyond.

“Let’s see how far the technology can take us,” he said.

Manber said he takes inspiration from architect R. Buckminster Fuller, the visionary who invented geodesic domes and once said all human beings were “astronauts on a little spaceship called Earth.” Now NanoRacks is envisioning little spaceships that can help expand humanity’s range beyond Earth.

“He was so far ahead of his time,” Manber said. “We’re looking at Independence-1 as a continuation in space of what Buckminster Fuller wanted to do.”

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