Space Housing Market Update

On Sept. 27, 2023, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio broke the record for consecutive days in space, completing a single mission aboard the International Space Station of 371 days, which conclusively proves that astronauts can live in space for over a year and suggests that astronauts can survive in space much longer. (Russian cosmonaut Valery Ryumin also logged 371 days in space, but broken over four missions).

It’s an exciting milestone towards longterm human endurance and sustainability in space. Do you want to live in space in the near future? Here is an updated list of the prospective locations.

Day Trips

Virgin Galactic will get you to the edge of space, and has been launching several people about once per month. They have a considerable backlog of pair customers, so it you aren’t already on their list, don’t hold your breath for a trip. Blue Origin has also launched several missions of passengers. There was a mishap (on a flight involving no passengers) on September 12, 2022, but the FAA closed the investigation on September 27, 2023, so flights will presumably resume. You can catch a ride all of the way to the International Space Station (ISS) on the Axiom Space also provides rides on the SpaceX Dragon capsule.

International Space Station

It is still up there in space. Transit routes are as a government astronaut or on an Axiom mission (above).

Tiangong Space Station

China continues to expand its Tiangong space station in low earth orbit and is aiming for continuous habitation.

Axiom Station

Construction is underway of what is billed at the world’s first commercial space station. Preliminary and critical design reviews in collaboration with NASA have been completed. Partners Thales Alenia Space has begin fabrication of the primary structures of Axiom Station’s first module. Then final assembly and integration of the module will be completed in Houston. Axiom Space is preparing for a 2026 launch of the first section of the station. It will operate in low earth orbit (LEO).

Cylindrical module against artistic star field

First module of Axiom space station. Credit: Axiom Space.

You will be living in style in quarters designed by Philippe Starck. You could also be dressed in style in a Prada-designed space suit.

Padded, long rectangular room with video screen and small window viewing space

Artistic rendition of living quarters on Axiom space station. Credit: Axiom Space


The Starlab space station is lead by Nanoracks, Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin. Voyager Space has itself teamed up with Airbus, Above Space and Orbital Assembly. Starlab plans to launch in 2028.

Want to invest? Above Space has posted a crowd-investing link on its site, although it appears to be for related but different companies.

Single module space station with solar arrays floating above earth

Artistic rendering of Starlab space station. Credit: Starlab

Orbital Reef

The Orbital Reef space station is being proposed by a consortium of aerospace companies, lead by Blue Origin with partners, Sierra Space, Boeing and Redwire. However, despite receiving  $130 million under NASA’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program, the future of the Orbital Reef project is uncertain. CBS reports that “Blue Origin and Sierra Space are navigating a potential end to the Orbital Reef space station partnership”. Motley Fool reports that Blue Origin is now focused on its $3.4 billion government contract for Blue Moon, an astronaut moon lander and that Sierra Space is having success with its Dreamchaser project and investing in its own space station concept, but that NASA reports that Orbital Reef is still being worked on.

Northrop Grumman / Lunar Gateway

Despite being awarded $125.6 million by NASA under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program, Northrup Grumman Systems Corporation has dropped out of the competition an an individual firm. Instead, it will work with Voyager Space to provide supply missions to the Starlab station.

However, the Lunar Gateway (NASA, ESA, CSA and JAXA), previously called the Deep Space Gateway, and now sometimes just the Gateway or the Gateway Space Station, is expected to be launched in 2025 (previously 2024). The Gateway will be the furthest semi-permanent human facility in space. The only existing means to get there will be the Space Launch System and its Orion capsule. The SpaceX Starship could possibly reach it as well.

Moon and Mars

Although NASA has no specific plans yet to land humans on Mars, there are concrete plans to send humans to the Moon by the end of this decade via the Artemis missions, including the Human Landing System (HLS). SpaceX and Blue Origin are the contracting companies working on HLS. The cost of landing on the Moon (and especially getting back) are very expensive, even by aerospace standards. To get a ticket, you’ll need to be a very lucky government astronaut. Private astronauts might be able to buy a ticket to a Starship mission to the Moon, but the ticket price likely won’t be for the feint-of-heart, even for billionaires.

There is talk of sending the SpaceX Starship to Mars. So if that is your dream location, you can start with impressing Elon Musk by getting one of those verified X accounts.

Sustainability Analysis

Although these new facilities can increase the quantity of people who can simultaneously live in space, none of these facilities for living in space appear to do much to improve sustainability. Frank Rubio’s mission longevity record might be broken in incremental steps, but not by an order of magnitude unless there are also at least an order of magnitude in investments in life support technologies. Such investments do not appear to be taking place.

UPDATED to include section on Orbital Reef.

UND Grand Farms Space Ag Conference 2023

Space Ag Conference bannerNeither rain, nor sleet nor snow could stop the Grand Farms Space Ag Conference 2023, associated with the University of North Dakota. Nature sure tried hard with a big blizzard, but the conference kicked into high gear in virtual mode.

This is the third Grand Farms Space Ag Conference. According to Andrew Jason, Director of Ecosystem at Grand Farms, the three goals of the conference concerned:

  1. Highlight how space technology impacts earth agriculture (satellites, indoor agriculture, etc.).
  2. We’ll have a permanent settlement on the moon in the next 5-10 years. How will we sustain that population? This technology will impact earth agriculture.
  3. We need a net new migration of people into agriculture. Let’s use space to excite kids in agriculture.
The conference featured speakers from NASA, academia and industry. Barbara Belvisi of Interstellar Lab spoke about their plant growth chambers and plant space pods. Ralph Fritsche, NASA’s Senior Project Manager for Space Crop Production, presented the big picture and helped from the rest of the discussions. Richard Barker spoke about the University of Wisconsin’s drought-resistant cotton project, which is one of the more promising commercial plant genetics projects.

Other speakers included:

  • Senator Kevin Cramer
  • UND President Armacost
  • Senator Hoeven
  • Marshall Porterfield of Pulsar Exploration
  • Amy Podolf of Growing Beyond Earth
  • Breanna Pastir of Wahpeton High School
  • Barney Geddes of North Dakota State University
  • Benjamin Greaves of Starlab Oasis,
  • Kris Kimel of Humanity in Deep Space, 
  • Keith Crisman of the University of North Dakota, 
  • Duncan Hitchens of Lynntech, Inc.,
  • Adam Williams of University of Minnesota, and
  • Mark Ciotola of Sustainspace.

There were several important recurrent themes. First, space agriculture also includes using plant R&D in space for Earth agriculture. Second, K-12 educators have a strong role to play, both in education and original R&D, such as the plant maker space at Growing Beyond Earth. Third, while hardware and biology ring loudest, regolith and soil work are a vital component of the space ag eco-structure. Fourth, while most space government plant R&D appears to be funded by the USA, the start-ups with the most funding, i.e. Interstellar Lab and Starlab Oasis appear to have European or Middle-Eastern components. Fifth, Grand Farms is building its own facility, so perhaps there will be tours at the next conference (which will be in a likely non-blizzard time of the year, such as September or October).

Edited: April 5, 2023 to include conference goals and facility image.

large building in field

Grand Farm Innovation Facility (credit: Grand Farms)

A New Era of Private Space Stations


For the past several years, there has been much hullabaloo regarding proposed private space stations. Yet several current proposals seem much more substantive than chiefly aspirational proposals in the past. That the International Space Station (ISS) has less than one decade of expected life remaining has accelerated both investment as well as government interest and funding. Reduced launch costs provide a further foundation for  the tangibility of such proposals.

The meaning of “private” is rather muddled. Parts of the International Space Station have been build by private firms, yet no one would call the government-operated ISS private. Yet, extensive government funding for a space station is insufficient to overcome the private descriptor. That a station will be owned and operated by private firms, despite chiefly being funded by governments is apparently sufficient for the private descriptor, even though governments are still on the hook for funding and legal liability for possible damages caused by that station.

There have been numerous proposed private space stations that failed for lack of funding and other reasons. However, with ISS reaching the end of its lifetime, and with governments setting their sights closer towards the Moon (e.g. the Lunar Gateway station), there has been strong impetus by G7 governments to strongly encourage (with funding and friendlier policies) the development of one or more private space stations in low Earth orbit. This isn’t Apollo-sized funding, which has been reserved instead for the Space Launch System (SLS). A “new space” approach might be able to lower the cost of such a station from hundreds of billions of dollars to just several billion, and perhaps even hundreds of millions for the initial core elements (propulsion, power, habitat). Despite the caveat that most of this will be government-funded, it is a time of exciting possibilities.

There are several proposed private space stations that already have potentially awarded funding in excess of $100 million. Nevertheless, there are many plans for private space stations. This article will review them, and discuss their status and key scenarios for the next several years.

What’s Up There Now?

There already are human-tended private “space station” facilities already in space, attached to ISS. Bigelow Aerospace provided an actual inflatable BEAM module to the International Space Station. It was used for testing and storage, but it worked and is still in orbit, though Bigelow as an enterprise has substantially reduced operations. Nanoracks has sent up the Bishop airlock module to ISS. It includes an airlock and room for experiments. It is operational and Nanoracks is a lively venture. It’s not a space station, but this technology could become part of a private space station.

What Could Be Up There Soon?

Axiom will be sending a private, substantially NASA-funded module to ISS. This module could be detached from ISS to form an initial module of a stand-alone private space station.

What Could Replace ISS?

It is expected that that ISS will endure operational until 2024 and hoped to remain operational until 2030. So which proposed standalone private space stations could credibly be in orbit within the next two to seven years? What will be the characteristics of those stations. Of special interest to Sustainspace, what novel and advanced life support technologies or approaches will be utilized?

While acknowledging the many proposals over the years for private space stations, we will examine well-funded current proposals. Well-funded generally means at least $100 million has been potentially awarded in private investment and government contracts. Some of the government funding has been awarded under NASA NextSTEP programs, covered previously by Sustainspace in Space Habitats for Lunar Gateway.

Axiom Station

NASA awarded Axion Space a NextSTEP I contract for an ISS module in February 2020 with a maximum potential value of $140 million. Although Axiom was not awarded an independent space station contract, this module could possibly be detached in the future as part of own standalone space station.

The proposed Axiom standalone space station has a “crew quarters + research and manufacturing capabilities … A late 2025 launch of the first section” is projected” (Axiom).

Major Elements
  • Hab One
  • Hab Two
  • Research & Manufacturing Facility
  • Power Thermal Module
Further information

Series of space station assemblies

Axiom space station Infographic (credit: Axion Space)

Orbital Reef

The Orbital Reef space station is being proposed by a consortium of aerospace companies, lead by Blue Origin. NASA awarded Blue Origin $130 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program to “formulate and design commercial low-Earth orbit destination capabilities suitable for potential government and private sector needs” (NASA 2021). NASA awarded the agreement in December 2021″.

Orbital Reef has passed its system definition review by NASA (see also . The target is for Orbital Reef to be in Earth orbit in second half of this decade.

Chief Partners
  • Blue Origin
  • Sierra Space
  • Boeing
  • Redwire
Further information:

multi-module space station above Earth

Orbital Reef space station (credit: Sierra Space)


The Starlab space station is proposed by a partnership of aerospace companies lead by Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin. Nanoracks already has the Bishop Airlock module in orbit attached to the International Space Station. Lockheed has already developed the Orion human space capsule.

NASA awarded Nanoracks LLC $160 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program.

  • Nanoracks
  • Voyager Space
  • Lockheed Martin
Major Elements
  • Power/propulsion
  • Airlock module
  • Inflatable module
Further Information:

space station with solar arrays and inflatable module

Starlab space station (credit: Nanoracks)

Northrop Grumman station

Northrop Grumman’s proposed space station is unnamed, but it could be a variation of Northrop Grumman’s Lunar Gateway power and HALO core modules with later additions.

NASA awarded Northrup Grumman Systems Corporation $125.6 million under the agency’s Commercial Low-Earth Orbit Destination program.

“The station will have the ability to support four permanent crewmembers initially, with plans to expand to an eight-person crew and further capability beyond that. The station is designed for a permanent presence of 15 years.” (Northrup Grumman 2021)

Despite being a traditional aerospace contractor, Northrop-Grumman is very down to business. In essence, they will be building two stations (Lunar Gateway and LEO), so there should be some economies of scale and reuse of know-how and IP. This endeavor is positioned on their website as more of a “pay-to-spay” facility rather ran an aspirational venture for the love of space. Hence the usual details (such as planned modules) aren’t well-publicized. Yet if they get continued funding, bets are on that they will deliver.

  • Northrup Grumman
  • Thales Alenia Space (possible, based on Lunar Gateway)
  • Maxar Technologies (possible, based on Lunar Gateway)
  • Crew quarters
  • Science
  • Up to six docking ports
Further Information
Space station comprising cylindrical modules and solar arrays

Northrup Grumman space station

Other Possibilities

There are a few “under the radar” possibilities for private space stations to be in orbit in the next few years.

SpaceX Starship

Over in left field, the SpaceX Starship could provide enough volume in space to match that of ISS. There are no published plans to use Starship as a private LEO space station, but if other endeavors fail, it would not be surprising for Starship to fill in, relatively quickly, if the US government is willing to pay for it.

Sierra Space Dreamchaser + Shooting Star module

Somewhat under the radar, and originally billed as a Dreamchaser cargo attachment, Shooting Star can also function as a standalone outpost. The Defense Innovation Unit has contracted with Sierra Space to use Shooting Star as an unmanned space outpost. It can be pressurized. A Shooting Star in combination with a Dreamchaser spacecraft could function as a modest space station.

Whimsical? Blue Origin—Orbital Amazon Distribution Center

Will Blue Origin place an Amazon distribution center in orbit? Highly desired products could be rapidly delivered in small landing capsules to anywhere in the world for those willing and able to pay. When will this happen? Keep a careful eye on those Amazon order delivery options!

STEM Growth Chamber Project

Arduino and battery atop a cube containing plants

STEM Plant Cube version 1.0


The known Universe is 92 billion lightyears in size. Yet, ironically, volume available for plant experiments in space is often limited to mere centimeters. This presents a challenge for growing plants in space for food, research and other purposes.

Consequently, inspired by the cube sat movement, SustainSpace has been developing a suite of 1U–2U cube form plant growth chambers involving minimal volume and mass. Ultimately intended for space research, SustainSpace is also developing an inexpensive STEM version for educational use on Earth, using “off-the-shelf” components.

A goal of this project is to introduce students to concepts related to growing plants in space, such as inputs and outputs, constrained volume, sensing and controlling. Another goal is to eventually produce a chamber that is better optimized to actually grow plants.

Version 1.0

Sustainspace has developed version 1.0 of the STEM version chamber. This version is a baseline STEM chamber intended to demonstrate key concepts and be relatively simple to construct. It requires no soldering, but patience is helpful.

It contains colored LEDs for illuminating plants and signaling growth direction and several. It is built around a 1U (10 cm^3) translucent plastic frame. In one configuration, plants are contained in open air in a pullout square petri dish tray, but could be placed in other enclosures (sealed or open air).

An Arduino controls multicolor LEDs and monitors temperature and humidity sensors. Data transmission is through a cable attached to a computer. However, the chamber LEDs can be operated by connecting a simple 9 Volt battery to the Arduino. LEDs are pulsed to provide red light to give the plants energy (via photosynthesis) and blue light to communicate desired growth direction.

This version is not intended to provide the necessities of growing plants, aside from a small proportion of required light. The 1U frame is translucent with large openings to allow air and light to enter the cube. The plants will also need to be watered. This chamber is only 10 cm tall, so plants may periodically need to be trimmed to fit inside.

Our baseline test plant is chives. They can germinate in a media-filled petri dish and grow in the chamber. Periodic trimming provides a nice food garnish. If protection against evaporation is provided, the chives can be neglected for weeks, allowing them to survive school breaks. A square petri dish can slide in and out of the chamber like a drawer. For simplicity, soil can be used as the root media, but gel and netting can be used if the chamber is rotated to simulate microgravity.

Plant cube with chive plants and blue LEDs

STEM Plant Cube version 1.0 with chive plants and blue LEDs

For further information, please see the Project Page.

A New Frontier In Life Support with the I-HAB

Cylinder module with solar cell wings

I-HAB module (Credit: ESA)

I-HAB, a seldom-discussed component of the Lunar Gateway, could have an out-sized impact on the advancement of life support systems. This module is chiefly devoted to human habitation and life support. It is being developed primarily under the auspices of the European Space Agency who has devoted significant resources towards the development of closed-loop life support. Therefore, discussion of this module deserves to be revisited.

Lunar Gateway

The Lunar Gateway (also called the Cis-Lunar Gateway, or simply Gateway) will be the first microgravity deep space habitat for humans. It will introduce humans to space environmental factors for much longer periods than past lunar missions. The Gateway is being developed by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), JAXA, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).The Gateway will comprise several modules.

The Lunar Gateway conceptually began as the Deep Space Gateway, and was originally a stand-alone destination for the Space Launch System mega-rocket and the Orion capsule. After the advent of the Artemis program, the gateway was renamed the Lunar Gateway and has a support role for the Artemis program. One role would be to serve as an assembly point for a lunar landing spacecraft requiring components from multiple launches. (Note: not all Artemis proposed scenarios require assembly).

The core module of the Gateway is the Halo module. Halo will provide basic life support and environmental control capabilities, but will be extremely barebones. It is just good enough to sustain humans at the minimum level as long as supplies last. It is being constructed and will be launched under an extremely tight timeline (subject to funding).

Arrangement of Gateway components

Gateway configuration (credit: ESA)


In contrast, the International Habitat (I-HAB or iHab) module will explore sustainability in deep space. It may contain some closed-loop capabilities. “I-HAB is ESA’s contribution of an infrastructure element supporting the Gateway with full crew habitability and utilization requirements from early 2026. I-HAB includes contributions from USA, Japan and Canada Space Agencies.” (ESA I-HAB Industry Day Invitation).

I-HAB is being built by Thales Alenia Space company and a consortium of other companies. “The company has just signed a first tranche contract with the European Space Agency (Esa) of €36m (£32m) to begin work on iHab (the eventual, full contract will be worth €327m/£295m).” (BBC News).

“iHab will have room for four astronauts to comfortably move around. It will require all the additional equipment needed for life support, and carry protection against micrometeorite impacts – and the increased radiation that exists when moving away from Earth.” (BBC News).

Room with astronaut and equipment

I-HAB interior mock-up (credit: Thales Alenia Space)

It is possible that I-HAB will eventually contain an astroculture component to supply fresh food for long duration missions and for research in the deep space environment. Characteristics of that environment include the forces of the cis-lunar orbit and a wider variety of radiation than that received at the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit. “The I-HAB will experience for the first time long exposure in the deep space environment, offering the opportunity to test and prove potential design solutions for protection against cosmic radiations.” (Thales Group).

SustainSpace will continue to delve further in the details of I-HAB as they become better known.


NASA CSA Deep Space Food Challenge

crescent moon with corn and spoon

NASA CSA Deep Space Food Challenge

NASA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are inviting organizations and teams of individuals the Deep Space Food Challenge invites teams to create novel and game-changing food technologies or systems that require minimal inputs and maximize safe, nutritious, and palatable food outputs for long-duration space missions, and which have potential to benefit people on Earth.

This is an international competition. NASA and CSA are offering hundreds of thousands of dollars of cash challenges, and others can get the glory of recognition.

This is an exciting opportunity to get involved in space life support development. The challenge is administered by the Methuselah Foundation, which describes its mission to accelerate breakthroughs in longevity. It was co-founded in 2001 by David Gobel and Dr. Aubrey de Grey.

There are deadlines for registration, entry and milestones, so please see the Deep Space Challenge website for further information for requirements, eligibility and timelines.

Nanoracks StarLab AgTech Space Farming Center

Spacestation module with cube greenhouses attached

Rendering of greenhouses mounted externally to the Nanoracks Bishop Airlock on the ISS. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

The Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) has announced that they are partnering with Nanoracks via their Agriculture Technology (AgTech) Incentive Program, an effort that supports the development of cutting-edge programs to boost the emirate’s AgTech capabilities and promote innovation.

AED 152 million (USD 41 million) of incentives from ADIO will allow Nanoracks to build the StarLab Space Farming Center in Abu Dhabi as an AgTech commercial space research center. The Center will be focused on advancing knowledge and technology about organisms and food that are produced in the harsh and alien environment of space. Nanoracks is seeking through innovations in space-based AgTech to solve key food sustainability challenges on Earth, mostly caused by climate change, which can help to ‘green the desert.’

Allen Herbert, SVP of Business Development and Strategy, and Head of Nanoracks, UAE, said: “Much of today’s technology used for vertical, urban and closed environment agriculture initially came from space research from 30 years ago, and Nanoracks is ready to synergise these technologies back to in-space exploration.”

A press release for the Center shows plants growing in Nanoracks’ proposed StarLab Outpost module shown below. Nanoracks proposed this same module as a core and habitation unit for NASA’s Lunar Gateway for the NextSTEP 2 deep space habitat competition (see our Space Habitats for Lunar Gateway story).

module with rows of plants inside

Rendering of greenhouses inside proposed StarLab Outpost. Credit: Nanoracks / Mack Crawford

US-based Nanoracks, the single largest commercial user of the International Space Station, opened its first UAE office in Abu Dhabi’s global tech ecosystem, Hub71, in 2019.