CNBC learned that the partnership between Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Sierra Space, which announced Orbital Reef in 2021 as a joint project, has been on rocky ground. The pair of private space companies are now navigating a potential end to the Orbital Reef partnership, according to three people who spoke to CNBC about the situation.
Those people, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic matters, emphasized that discussions are ongoing and described the situation as fluid. But other development projects with more significant current contracts – such as Blue Origin’s Blue Moon lunar lander and Sierra Space’s Dream Chaser spaceplane – have taken higher priority for both companies, those people said.
It’s becoming increasingly likely that Blue Origin and Sierra Space will go their separate ways, leaving behind joint efforts to develop Orbital Reef, according to those sources.
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Shortly after unveiling the Orbital Reef project, Blue Origin won a $130 million contract from NASA for design work on the private space station. That contract was one of three funded Space Act Agreements (SAA) that NASA issued for the first phase of its Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) program.
Blue is the prime contractor under that NASA award, with Sierra as a subcontractor.
NASA spokesperson Rebecca Wickes told CNBC in a statement that the agency has so far paid Blue Origin $24 million of the total contract amount for completing specified milestones. Wickes stated that “there is no plan to transfer the contract at this time.” Blue Origin did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment on Orbital Reef, but shortly after CNBC contacted the company on social media, it posted that “progress is being made on our Commercial Destinations Space Act Agreement” with NASA. Blue Origin and Sierra Space first unveiled Orbital Reef, envisioning a mixed-use business park in space. The first major pieces of Orbital Reef were scheduled to launch in 2027, with the companies aiming to begin service around the time the International Space Station retires near the end of the decade.Habitable space stations have long been an interest for Blue Origin, with Bezos’ vision for the company to create a future where “millions of people are living and working in space to benefit Earth.” Similarly, Sierra has been developing an habitat concept for years, known as LIFE (“Large Integrated Flexible Environment”).
Several companies are also working to build private space stations, with competing projects being led by Axiom, Voyager Space,
The Orbital Reef team also includes
, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University underneath Blue and Sierra.
Orbital Reef is not seen as a top priority for either company, according to three people familiar with the companies. Two of those sources pointed CNBC to a shift in Blue Origin’s interests after the company won a $3.4 billion NASA contract to build a crew lunar lander – noting its space station and lunar lander programs compete for resources in the same business unit.Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith is leaving at the end of the year and new leader Dave Limp will need to execute on other major projects – including its New Shepard and New Glenn rockets, as well as its BE-4 engine production.Similarly, much of Sierra’s resources are devoted to getting the initial cargo variation of its reusable Dream Chaser spaceplane flying. Dream Chaser has been under development for over a decade as part of a NASA contract to transport cargo to the International Space Station.
The Orbital Reef Project is in trouble: the website, which was created by Blue and Sierra jointly, hasn’t updated its development for more than a full year. Since Thursday, there are no job listings that mention Orbital Reef on either company’s career websites. This is despite the fact that the project has been mentioned in dozens of previous listings. Sierra Space has also stopped mentioning Orbital Reef, and instead focused on its habitat project, in its latest press releases. Northrop Grumman, for example, did not rejoin Blue Origin when it bid again for a crew moon lander. Airbus, which is more relevant to CLD, took over from Lockheed Martin to build the habitat core for another space station called Starlab. Sierra regularly posts updates on testing habitats. For example, a recent burst testing of a prototype sub-scale. Sierra announced last month that it would launch a “pathfinder mission” of its LIFE habitat (Large Integrated Flexible Environment), in 2026.