Entrepreneurs create a space “academy” as commercial space flourishes

An artistic rendering of Star Harbor Academy in Colorado.
enlarge An artistic rendering of Star Harbor Academy in Colorado.

Star Harbor

A group of astronauts, engineers and business leaders are committed to a vibrant space economy by launching a new initiative called ‘Star Harbor’. In addition to several planned activities, this spaceflight campus would train future astronauts and make public facilities such as a neutral buoyancy lab and a high-gravity centrifuge.

Star Harbor has already purchased 53 acres in Lone Tree, Colorado, for about $25 million, Star Harbor founder and Chief Executive Maraia Tanner said in an interview. The company plans to open its mixed-use development campus just south of Denver in 2026.

The centerpiece of the new development will be the Star Harbor Academy, said Tanner, who estimates development costs at $120 million. The academy includes microgravity flight capability, a neutral buoyancy facility, a high gravity centrifuge, land and underwater habitats, hypobaric and hyperbaric chambers, a human performance center, and more.

starting with loads

Initially, Star Harbor will serve research and development customers such as college groups, startup companies and other enterprises that do not have access to facilities to test their payloads. There are only a handful of facilities around the world that have some facilities built to mimic space flight conditions, such as a centrifuge or large swimming pool, Tanner said, and most of those are reserved for government use.

“I think there’s a lot of new technology and new ideas being brought to the forefront,” she said. “But there’s a bottleneck in moving them forward, which we really want to help with.” In that sense, Star Harbor aims to become a technology incubator and can accept payments from stock companies.

Tanner said she expects about 60 percent of Star Harbor’s revenues to come from such research and development efforts, with a much smaller segment initially coming from commercial astronaut training.

But that can change over time. Currently, NASA astronauts train primarily at NASA facilities for their orbital missions, and space tourists making suborbital flights on Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic vehicles train at those companies’ own facilities. However, Tanner said there is already an unserved market that is expected to grow.

She pointed to the Inspiration4 mission led by businessman and pilot Jared Isaacman, which spent three days in low Earth orbit in 2021 aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Isaacman and his crew were not allowed to use the NASA facilities for centrifuge training and had to make a microgravity test flight of their own. Sian Proctor, a member of the Inspiration4 crew and the first black woman to pilot a spacecraft, is part of the Star Harbor leadership team. Other key figures include Ronald Garan Jr., a former NASA astronaut, and board members include Alan Ladwig, a former NASA policy officer, and Dennis Muilenburg, the former CEO of Boeing.

Long Term Bet on Private Space Stations

The commercial astronaut training facility also represents a gamble that NASA’s plan to commercialize low-Earth orbit will succeed. Private astronauts visiting the International Space Station have access to training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But the same may not be true for private space stations.

NASA goes ahead with a plan to support the development of one or more private stations in low Earth orbit, with the goal of flying them by 2028. NASA plans to be an “anchor tenant” for these commercial facilities, but only plans to be one of several customers for stations under development by Axiom, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and Nanoracks. While these companies will no doubt have training facilities to operate their stations, private astronauts will need somewhere to train in the other aspects of flying in space, such as experiencing microgravity and high G-forces. This is where Star Harbor could come.

A facility like Star Harbor would never have been built even a few years ago, because commercial spaceflight is only really getting off the ground to succeed. That has begun to happen in recent years, with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin finally starting to fly humans and a growing number of private spaceflights on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle. Billions of dollars in private investment have also gone into various commercial space ventures. Star Harbor assumes that these trends will continue, and maybe even accelerate, and it is aiming for a new generation of explorers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.