Northrop Grumman leaves behind solo commercial space station venture, partners with Nanoracks on ‘Starlab’

A rendering of the Nanoracks/Voyager Space commercial space station orbiting the Earth. Image: Nanoracks

About a year and a half after signing a Space Act Agreement with NASA to develop a commercial space station, Northrop Grumman formally withdrew from its solo plans in order to partner with Nanoracks, a subsidiary of Voyager Space.

Under this new venture, Northrop Grumman will provide cargo transportation services for the commercial space station dubbed “Starlab.” To that end, the Cygnus spacecraft will be upgraded to allow for autonomous docking with the future space station.

It’s a feature currently available on the SpaceX Cargo Dragon spacecraft as well as Roscosmos’ Progress spacecraft. Currently, Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft is berthed to the International Space Station using the Canadarm2 robotic arm.

“This collaboration is a major step forward for the Starlab program,” said Dylan Taylor, Chairman and CEO of Voyager Space in a statement. “Northrop Grumman’s technical capability and proven success in cargo resupply services will play a pivotal role as we accelerate Starlab’s development. We’re proud to be supporting advanced docking systems that push LEO transportation operations forward and advance critical technology for deep space exploration. We are thrilled to have Northrop Grumman on our Starlab team.”

In addition to upgrading Cygnus, Northrop agreed to deliver cargo to Starlab over a five-year period.

“We are fully committed to the future of commercial LEO. Our new role with Starlab supports NASA’s initiatives to encourage commercial space station development as part of a growing LEO economy,” said Steve Krein, Vice President of Civil and Commercial Space at Northrop Grumman, in a statement.

A Northrop Grumman Cygnus spacecraft approaches the International Space Station on a Commercial Resupply Services mission. Image: NASA

Leaving its own plans

Back on Dec. 2, 2021, Northrop Grumman was one of three free-flying commercial space stations designed to garner financial support from NASA as part of the Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Development program along with Blue Origin and Nanoracks.

The three were awarded a combined $415.6 million from the agency under a milestone-based agreement:

  • Blue Origin – $130 million
  • Nanoracks – $160 million
  • Northrop Grumman – $125.6 million

Separately on Feb. 28 2020, NASA awarded Axiom Space a firm-fixed price, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract of up to $140 million to provide at least one habitable commercial module that would attach to the ISS.

An infographic illustrating a rollout plan for Northrop Grumman’s proposed commercial space station. Image: Northrop Grumman

In his selection statement letter dated Dec. 1, 2021, Philip McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial space, ranked all of the free-flying space station proposals on a scale of confidence with blue representing “Very High Level of Confidence” and red representing “Very Low Level of Confidence” with green, white and yellow being the gradient in between.

Northrop Grumman’s proposal received a green rating for its technical approach, noting that its strengths including initial operating capacity supporting four crew members, a modular architecture and a robotic arm.

The plan scored a yellow rating for its business plan, brought on by what McAlister describes as having “very low private investment, an unsubstantiated financing plan and no schedule provided past (Preliminary Design Review).”

Northrop Grumman’s plans included up to six docking ports, crew capacity for up to eight people in its second stage configuration and science facilities, among other things.

“Under this agreement, the Northrop Grumman team will deliver a free flying space station design that is focused on commercial operations to meet the demands of an expanding LEO market,” said Steve Krein, Northrop Grummans’ vice president of civil and commercial space, in a 2021 statement.

In a statement about the new arrangement, NASA said that to date, $36.6 million of the $125.6 million potential had been awarded for reaching certain milestones:

  • Project management plan review
  • Commercial destination free flyer (CDFF) user and marketing plan review
  • Concept of operations review
  • CDFF-level system requirements review
  • A marketing status
  • Element 1 (first piece of its space station) level system requirements review

In a March 2023 blog post, which has since been removed from its website, Northrop Grumman described some of these milestones, stating that in January it “provided an update on our marketing and business development strategy and business model to attract customers and add additional partners to help develop the commercial LEO economy.”

Northrop Grumman also said that it had completed its System Requirements Review (SRR) by then as well.

“The SRR with NASA examined the functional, technical, performance, and security requirements for our concept,” Northrop Grumman said in the now deleted post. “It marks a tangible step forward that, paired with our ongoing outreach to commercial partners, brings our station concept one step closer to reality.”

McAlister argued that Northrop Grumman’s shift away from its own station is not a bad thing.

“This is a positive development for the commercial low Earth orbit destinations effort,” McAlister said in a statement on Wednesday. “Northrop Grumman has determined that its best strategy is to join the Nanoracks team and NASA respects and supports that decision.”

“We continue to see a strong competitive landscape for future commercial destinations and I am pleased that Northrop is staying with the program.”

Regarding the remaining $89 million that was part of Northrop’s original award, NASA said it will take that money “and other program funding to add milestone to the agency’s existing agreements with the other currently funded destination partners including Voyager Space/Nanoracks, Blue Origin and Axiom Space, assuming NASA and the companies can agree on the additional milestones and value.”

“Commercial destinations are a critical capacity for NASA as we transition low Earth orbit operations to private industry and open access to space. Refining strategies and evolving partnerships are part of the process as we build a robust low Earth orbit economy where NASA is one of many customers,” said Angela Hart, the manager of commercial low Earth orbit development program at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“This opportunity provides us the ability to reduce risks and have more insight into our partners’ technical designs.”