Axiom Space will provide at least one habitable module to help spur commercial activity in orbit.
The International Space Station (ISS) is taking a big step toward increased commercial use.
NASA has picked Houston-based company Axiom Space to build at least one habitable private module that will be attached to the orbiting lab, the space agency announced Monday (Jan. 27).
NASA hopes the Axiom module helps spur the growth of an off-Earth economy, one that eventually extends far beyond the ISS in both time and space.
"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement.
"We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration," he added. "It is a similar partnership that this year will return the capability of American astronauts to launch to the space station on American rockets from American soil."
Bridenstine was referring in that last sentence to NASA's Commercial Crew Program, which has funded the development of two private crew capsules, SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. The agency is counting on these homegrown astronaut taxis to end American reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets and spacecraft to get folks to and from the ISS.
Bridenstine has stressed that NASA wants to be just one of many customers for Starliner and Crew Dragon. The agency's vision is similar for these vehicles' destinations: If all goes according to plan, a variety of private companies, university groups and other customers will take advantage of the ISS and other outposts that eventually set up shop in Earth orbit.
These other outposts are key, for the ISS won't last forever. Indeed, the station is currently funded only through 2024 (though operations could end up being extended through 2028, or perhaps even later). Axiom aims to build and operate its own space station in the near future, as do several other companies, including Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.
Bigelow already has some hardware attached to the ISS — the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which arrived at the orbiting lab in April 2016 to validate the company's expandable habitat technology for crewed in-space use. BEAM has performed very well during its nearly four years in orbit, NASA officials have said, and the agency plans to keep it on the station (and use it for storage) through the late 2020s.
The Axiom module will be affixed to the ISS' Node 2 forward port, NASA officials said. The main goal is to demonstrate the module's commercial potential and aid the transition toward greater private use of the orbiting lab — a key agency priority — and the final frontier in general.
Axiom's winning proposal was submitted in response to a call via Appendix I of NASA's Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) 2 Broad Agency Announcement, which offered companies the use of ISS utilities and a port.
"NASA and Axiom next will begin negotiations on the terms and price of a firm-fixed-price contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year option," NASA officials wrote in the same statement.
"Because commercial destinations are considered a key element of a robust economy in low-Earth orbit, NASA also plans to issue a final opportunity to partner with the agency in the development of a free-flying, independent commercial destination," they added. "Through these combined efforts to develop commercial destinations, NASA is set to meet its long-term needs in low-Earth orbit well beyond the life of the station."
NASA selects Axiom Space to build commercial space station module
WASHINGTON — NASA has selected a startup led by a former International Space Station program manager to develop a commercial module for the station.
NASA announced Jan. 27 that Houston-based Axiom Space will win access to a docking port on the station, to which the company will install a commercial module for research and other applications. The agency said that it will begin negotiations on a formal contract with Axiom, with a five-year base period and a two-year option.
Axiom was founded in 2016 by Kam Ghaffarian, who previously led space industry engineering services company Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, and Michael Suffredini, who was program manager for the ISS at NASA for a decade prior to his retirement from the agency in 2015. The company has several former astronauts in leadership positions, including former NASA administrator Charles Bolden, listed as a “business development consultant” on the company’s website.
Axiom says it believes that experience, as well as an industry team that includes Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines and Maxar Technologies, played a key role in its selection. “There is a fantastically steep learning curve to human spaceflight,” Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said in a company statement. “The collective experience at Axiom is quite far along it. Because we know firsthand what works and what doesn’t in LEO, we are innovating in terms of design, engineering and process while maintaining safety and dramatically lowering costs.”
The company has revealed few technical details about its proposed addition to the ISS, other than that the “Axiom Segment” will ultimately include a node module, research and manufacturing facility, crew habitat and “large-windowed” module for viewing the Earth. Axiom expects the first module to be launched in the second half of 2024.
NASA did not disclose in its statement why it selected Axiom for the module. The agency’s statement did feature laudatory comments from Texas’ two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Rep. Brian Babin, whose district includes Axiom’s headquarters near the Johnson Space Center.
“This partnership between NASA and Axiom Space — a Houston, Texas original — illustrates how critically important the International Space Station is, and will continue to be, for developing new technologies for low Earth orbit and beyond, and for continuing America’s leadership in space,” Cruz said in the statement.
NASA had been studying making the docking port, on the station’s Node 2 or Harmony module, available to a commercial module for several years, issuing a request for information from industry on the topic in 2016. The effort got new life last June when the agency rolled out its low Earth orbit commercialization initiative, which offered the docking port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.
“Axiom’s work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency statement.
That statement added that a separate effort under NextSTEP to support development of a free-flying commercial space station will go forward. NASA issued a draft solicitation for that in October, but did not set a date for when the final solicitation will be released.
That’s welcome news for another company developing commercial space stations. “Congrats to @Axiom_Space on attached to space station commercial module selection!” tweeted Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, after the NASA announcement. “Eager to see NASA offering on free flyer which is overdue.”
Another company long thought to be interested in adding a commercial module to the ISS is Bigelow Aerospace, who already has a small experimental module, called BEAM, attached to the station. A company official didn’t respond to a request for comment on Bigelow’s plans in the wake of the NASA award to Axiom.