Airbus is helping build Starlab, a space station to replace the ISS

3 Aug 2023

An artist's impression of Starlab. Image: Starlab Space LLC

A joint venture between France’s Airbus and US-based Voyager will see the creation of Starlab to help NASA and the ESA with space research in the next decade.

Airbus has entered into an agreement with US-based Voyager Space to collaborate on the development of Starlab, the first commercial space station to replace the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of this decade.

The transatlantic joint venture will see greater US and European collaboration in space research and exploration. Both NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) will use Starlab to meet space research demands, as will a host of other national agencies from around the world.

While the announcement of a collaboration between Airbus and Voyager Space was first made in January, full details of the extent of European support in the US-led joint venture were revealed yesterday (2 August).

This means that in addition to a US entity, Starlab will also have a European joint venture subsidiary to directly serve the ESA and its member state space agencies.

Matthew Kuta, president of Voyager Space, said that the company – which was awarded $160m from NASA in 2021 towards the creation of Starlab – is “proud to charter the future of space stations” with Airbus.

“The ISS is widely regarded as the most successful platform for global cooperation in space history and we are committed to building on this legacy as we move forward with Starlab,” he said. “We are establishing this joint venture to reliably meet the known demand from global space agencies while opening new opportunities for commercial users.”

Continuously occupied by humans for nearly 23 years now, the ISS is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. The orbital laboratory is co-operatively run by the US, Europe, Russia, Canada and Japan and is the largest single structure humans ever put into space.

It is funded largely by NASA at a cost of $3bn per year, roughly a third of the agency’s human spaceflight budget. As of May 2022, 258 individuals from 20 countries had visited the ISS, mostly from the US and Russia, the latter of whom will continue to participate in the programme until 2028.

Now that it has been operating for almost eight years more than it was intended to, the ISS is set to be decommissioned and de-orbited at the end of the decade.

Last month, Starlab reached a major milestone in its journey to replace the ISS after it completed the systems requirements review, a check to ensure the plan meets NASA’s mission and safety requirements.

“Today marks a major step forward for the future of commercial space destinations,” Voyager’s Kuta went on. “We are proud to have NASA’s trust to build the replacement for the ISS, a partnership that expands Starlab’s ecosystem to global space agencies, and a team that is mission-driven and dedicated to reimagining the future.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic