A group of astronauts, engineers, and business executives is betting on a vibrant space economy by launching a new initiative called “Star Harbor.” Among several planned activities, this spaceflight campus would train future astronauts and make facilities such as a neutral buoyancy laboratory and high-gravity centrifugal publicly available.
Star Harbor has already acquired 53 acres in Lone Tree, Colorado, for about $25 million, said Star Harbor founder and Chief Executive Maraia Tanner in an interview. The company plans to open the 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 cost at $120 million. The academy will include the capability for microgravity flights, a neutral buoyancy facility, high-gravity centrifugal, land-based and underwater habitats, hypobaric and hyperbaric chambers, a human performance center, and more.
Starting with payloads
Initially, Star Harbor will seek to serve research and development customers, such as university groups, startup companies, and other ventures that don’t have access to facilities to test their payloads. There are only a handful of facilities around the world with some of the amenities built to mimic spaceflight conditions, such as a centrifugal or large pool, Tanner said, and most of those are reserved for government use.
“I think that 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 assist with.” In this sense, Star Harbor seeks to become a technology incubator and may accept payment from companies in equity.
Tanner said she expects that about 60 percent of Star Harbor’s revenue will come from such research and development efforts, with a much smaller segment initially derived from commercial astronaut training.
But that could change over time. Presently, NASA astronauts train primarily at NASA facilities for their orbital missions, and space tourists taking 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 in 2021 spent three days in low Earth orbit aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. Isaacman and his crew were not allowed to use NASA facilities for centrifugal training, 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 pilot a spacecraft, is among Star Harbor’s leadership team. Other key figures include Ronald Garan Jr., a former NASA astronaut, and board members include Alan Ladwig, a former NASA policy official, and Dennis Muilenburg, the former CEO of Boeing.
Long-term bet on private space stations
The commercial astronaut training facility also represents a bet that NASA’s plan to commercialize low Earth orbit will take off. Private astronauts who visit the International Space Station have access to training at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. But the same may not hold true for private space stations.
NASA is moving ahead with a plan to support the development of one or more private stations in low Earth orbit, with the goal of having them flying by 2028. NASA plans to be an “anchor tenant” for these commercial facilities but only intends to be 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 somewhere to train on the other aspects of flying into space, such as experiencing microgravity 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, since, for it to succeed, commercial spaceflight has to really take off. That has started to happen in the last couple of 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 moved into various commercial space businesses. Star Harbor presumes these trends will continue, and perhaps accelerate, and it seeks to foster a new generation of explorers.