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Entrepreneurs create a space “academy” as commercial space flourishes

An artist's rendering of Star Harbor Academy in Colorado.
Enlarge / An artist’s rendering of Star Harbor Academy in Colorado.

Star Harbor

A group of astronauts, engineers and business leaders are betting on a vibrant space economy by launching a new initiative called “Star Harbor”. Among several planned activities, this space campus would train future astronauts and make facilities such as a neutral buoyancy laboratory and high-gravity centrifuge publicly available.

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

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

Starts with payload

Initially, Star Harbor will seek to serve research and development customers, such as university groups, startups, and other companies that do not have access to facilities to test their payload. There are only a handful of facilities around the world with some of the facilities built to mimic spaceflight conditions, such as a centrifuge or large pool, Tanner said, and most of them are reserved for government use.

“I think there is a lot of new technology and new ideas being brought to the forefront,” she said. “But there’s a bottleneck in moving them forward that we’re really looking to help.” In this sense, Star Harbor seeks to become a technology incubator and can receive payment from equity companies.

Tanner said she expects about 60 percent of Star Harbor’s revenue will come from such research and development efforts, with a much smaller segment originally derived from commercial astronaut training.

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

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

Long-term investment in private space stations

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

NASA goes ahead with a plan to support the development of one or more private stations in low orbit around the Earth with the goal of having them fly in 2028. NASA plans to be “anchor bearings” for these commercial facilities, but has only intends to become one of many customers for stations under development by Axiom, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and Nanoracks. While these companies will undoubtedly have training facilities to operate their stations, private astronauts will need a place to train on the other aspects of flying into space, such as experiencing micro-gravity and high G-forces. This is where Star Harbor could come in.

A facility like Star Harbor would never have been built even a few years ago, as commercial spaceflight really needs to take off in order for it to succeed. This has started to happen in the last few years, with Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin finally starting to fly humans and a growing number of private spaceflights on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Billions of dollars in private investment have also moved into various commercial space companies. Star Harbor assumes that these trends will continue and perhaps accelerate, and it seeks to promote a new generation of explorers.

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