America's Next Great Space Station Gets a Vote of Support From Japan

Starlab’s chances of becoming a reality just got a little stronger.

If you haven’t done so already, start the countdown now: In 2030, NASA intends to pull the plug on the International Space Station (ISS), deorbit the ISS, and allow it to first burn up in the atmosphere, then plunge into the sea.

And yes, I know, various members of the international consortium that built the ISS have been predicting its demise for years. At one point, in fact, the ISS was supposed to be deorbited in 2023. But here we are in 2024, and it’s still up there. That just serves to highlight the fact that the clock is ticking on the ISS, and its end is near at hand.

Three options for replacing the ISS

What will replace the ISS when the clock does finally strike midnight? That’s actually an excellent question. At last report, there are still at least four options being floated:

  • First and most famously, Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin will collaborate with Boeing, Redwire, and Sierra Space to build an Orbital Reef space station to replace the ISS.
  • Two other privately owned space companies, Vast Space and Axiom Space, have independent plans to build space stations in orbit.
  • Last but not least, privately held Voyager Space is now partnered with both Northrop Grumman (NOC 2.23%) and Airbus (EADSY) to build a space station to be known as Starlab.

That’s the one we’re going to talk about today.

A truly international space station

Of the three teams discussed, the most “international” of the teams vying to replace the International Space Station is Voyager’s. In addition to American aerospace company Northrop, Voyager’s team also includes the European aerospace champion Airbus. As of last week, it will also include an industrial leader from Japan: As the companies announced earlier this month, Japan’s Mitsubishi Corporation (MSBHF 1.65%) is taking an equity stake in the Starlab project.

Mitsubishi’s role in the project isn’t entirely clear at this point, but it still brings a lot to the table. A bona fide industrial heavyweight, Mitsubishi boasts $91 billion in market capitalization and nearly $130 billion in annual revenue, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence — nearly twice the revenue of Airbus and four times that of Northrop. The additional financial firepower could prove invaluable to the Starlab team as they work to build and launch their space station’s first module to orbit (atop a SpaceX Starship rocket) in 2028.

Mitsubishi also brings relationships with a related company, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (both companies are part of the Mitsubishi Group of companies, and thus at least loosely affiliated), which has its own defense, space, and aerospace business that also builds rockets.

What it means to investors

Developments attracting Mitsubishi as a partner, signing the SpaceX launch contract, and landing former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine as a director all suggest that, at this point Starlab is the company making the most progress toward getting a full-scale ISS replacement in orbit first.

In contrast, Starlab’s rivals at Orbital Reef haven’t posted any updates on their progress in the past six months. And to be honest, Blue Origin, the lead company on the Orbital Reef project, probably has its hands full right now as it works to beat SpaceX to a moon landing, get its New Glenn rocket ready for its first launch, and simultaneously finalize a purchase of space launch giant United Launch Alliance.

Adding a new space station to the mix might be a bit more than Blue Origin can juggle right now.

Granted, that doesn’t mean Starlab is guaranteed to succeed, either. To date, the project has received just $217.5 million in financial support from NASA — probably far less than it will cost to build an ISS replacement. (The ISS itself cost more than $100 billion to build). That being said, the more heavyweight companies Starlab can attract to its team (the better it can spread around the cost), the better Starlab’s chances of success are.

And the more heavyweight publicly traded companies, like Northrop, Airbus, and now Mitsubishi, that sign up with Starlab, the better investors’ chances of having a way to own a piece of Starlab when it succeeds.

Rich Smith has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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