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NanoRacks outpost
An artist’s conception shows a Centaur upper-stage booster that’s been outfitted to become an orbital outpost. (NanoRacks Illustration)

It takes a village to raise an space outpost, and NanoRacks’ array of villagers includes Stratolaunch as well as Olis Robotics, the startup formerly known as BluHaptics.

NanoRacks, which is headquartered in Texas, today listed those two Seattle-based companies among its partners for a NASA-funded study focusing on the future of commercial human spaceflight in low Earth orbit.

The study is one of 13 that were commissioned by NASA in August as part of its drive to commercialize orbital operations by 2025. That drive could involve handing over the U.S. segment of the International Space Station to private-sector management, or developing brand-new orbital platforms.

NanoRacks has proposed retrofitting the spent upper stages from United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets and its yet-to-be-built Vulcan rockets to create habitable outposts. The company unveiled its plan for the first outpost, dubbed Independence-1, in April.

In their study, NanoRacks and its teammates plan to define the market, policies and contractual ecosystems required to move ahead with what’s known as the “Outpost Program” and create robotic as well as habitable space platforms.

“This is our vision coming to life,” NanoRacks CEO Jeffrey Manber said today in a news release timed to coincide with the International Astronautical Congress in Bremen, Germany. “We are seeking to dramatically lower the cost for operating multiple commercial Outposts throughout the solar system, and we plan to do so in a way that leverages the expertise of agile commercial space companies, and feeds back into our growing ecosystem.”

Adrian Mangiuca, NanoRacks’ commerce director and principal investigator for the commercialization study, said the effort sets a new precedent for NanoRacks. “We have experts across the aerospace industry contributing innovative technology and business concepts, all for one collaborative program,” Mangiuca said.

Here’s the list of NanoRacks’ partners and their areas of focus:

  • United Launch Alliance – LEO Village
  • Terminal Velocity Aerospace – Payload return
  • Stratolaunch Systems – Outfitting its Medium Launch Vehicle to Outpost specifications
  • Lunar Resources – In-space manufacturing
  • Space BD – Collaboration on satellite deployment
  • Olis Robotics -Telerobotic operations
  • Made In Space – In-space manufacturing
  • Space Adventures – Space tourism
  • Altius Space Machines – Proximity operations and space tugs
  • Deep Space Industries – Orbital maneuvering
  • Kongsberg Satellite Services – Ground station coordination
  • Marsh – Insurance analysis
  • Oliver Wyman – Risk analysis

Stratolaunch, a company created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, is currently testing a twin-fuselage super-airplane that would be capable of air-launching rockets to orbit. Its development roadmap calls for sending the Medium Launch Vehicle on its first flight in the 2022 time frame.

Olis Robotics will study how NanoRacks’ Outposts and the International Space Station could benefit from pilot-controlled remote robots. The University of Washington spin-out, which changed its name from BluHaptics to Olis last month, specializes in control software for remote robots.

“The dynamic environment of space demands the precision, three-dimensional understanding and intuitive pilot controls that only Olis Robotics software provides,” Olis CEO Don Pickering said in a news release. “This first-of-its-kind technology will support efficiently and safely building and maintaining the next generation of space habitats, and allow us to reach faster and further outside our own orbit.”

At least a couple of NanoRacks’ partners have connections to other NASA space commercialization study groups: Space Adventures is in charge of a separate study among the 13 being funded, and like NanoRacks, it lists Made In Space as a study partner. United Launch Alliance’s two joint-venture parents, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, are leading their own studies as well.

Each of the 13 studies has a cost cap of $1 million, and all of the studies are due in December.

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