The sprawling International Space Station—so long a beacon of hope, unity, and technological achievement; so gleaming and bright it can be seen from a city’s downtown as it passes overhead—is nearer the end of its life than the beginning. And time is running out to replace the station before it’s gone.
Its first component, the Russian-built Zarya power and propulsion module, launched in 1998, and the other core pieces of the station were all sent spaceward by 2001. The backbone of the International Space Station, therefore, has spent two decades in space—a harsh environment of wild temperature swings, micrometeoroid impacts, torsional strains, and more.
In recent years, signs of aging have become more apparent, particularly with cracks spreading across the Zarya module. And more than the hardware is coming apart. The political forces that drove the formation of the space station partnership, principally the desire of the United States and Russia to work together after the Soviet breakup, have given way to a zealous anti-Americanism in Moscow and suspicions in Washington, DC. The partnership remains intact for now, thanks to healthy working relationships among astronauts, cosmonauts, and engineers. But politically, the rhetoric is at times toxic.
Although nothing has been formalized, a general consensus has emerged among the international partners that the International Space Station can probably keep flying through 2028 or 2030. But after that? NASA realizes it needs a succession plan.
Politicians and policymakers have started employing the spectre of the dreaded “g” word, saying NASA must avoid a “gap” in flying a low-Earth-orbit space station. This has become especially urgent with China’s recent, successful launch of its own Tiangong space station in April. In response to these concerns, NASA has hatched a plan. Recognizing the maturing US commercial space industry, NASA intends to become an “anchor tenant” of one or more privately developed space stations.
“We’re seeing a slow buildup to something significant,” said Jeff Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks. “We’re entering an era when there will be private space stations. It’s clear the political stars have aligned. Congress has realized that the ISS is coming to an end at some point, and we have to prepare so there is no space station gap.”
Now, we’re finally getting a glimpse of what such a future might look like and how fierce the competition may be. A Houston-based company called Axiom Space has been most public about its intentions, talking for a few years now about developing the world’s “first commercial space station.” But this week, two other options emerged for NASA: Nanoracks and Lockheed Martin announced their intent to build a space station called “Starlab,” and another team led by Blue Origin and Sierra Space revealed plans to construct an “Orbital Reef.”
There will likely be more bidders soon offering private station concepts as well. For the first time, Congress looks like it will appropriate significant funding for what NASA calls “Commercial LEO Destinations.” And the government money may eventually get much, much bigger.
Presently, NASA spends about $4 billion annually for its low-Earth-orbit program. This includes maintenance of the space station itself, cargo and crew transportation, space communications, and more. No one expects NASA to spend this much on commercial space stations, but it will need to spend a sizable fraction of its current ISS budget if any of these commercial stations are to be fully realized.
With this week’s announcements, the food fight for that funding is now well and truly underway.
Axiom was founded in 2016 with the express purpose of building a commercial space station as a follow-on to the International Space Station.
Michael Suffredini, NASA’s longtime manager of the ISS program, brought decades of expertise to the company. The other co-founder is space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian, who provided the startup funding to get the venture off the ground five years ago.
“There were all these companies building rockets to go to space,” Ghaffarian told Ars in an interview. “So we didn’t want to be in the ride business. We wanted to be in a destination business. We wanted to create a new ecosystem in low Earth orbit.”
Axiom has identified a number of potential markets for a commercial space station. Ghaffarian said the company envisions using its station for private and government astronauts, manufacturing and 3D printing, satellite servicing, and perhaps even a space-based data center.
“I feel like we’re in the early days of the Internet, in terms of the potential of all the things that we can accomplish,” he said.
As a first step toward its goal of increasing access to low Earth orbit, Axiom is taking private citizens to the International Space Station for short visits. Working with NASA and SpaceX, these once- or even twice-yearly missions will begin with the Ax-1 flight now scheduled for launch in February 2022.
In one respect, Axiom has a head start over its rivals in working toward commercial space stations. In February 2020, following a competitive procurement process, the company won a $140 million contract from NASA to develop a habitable commercial module for the International Space Station. The award gives Axiom the right to attach its module to the station’s Nore 2 forward point.
With this award, the company plans to launch its first privately built module to the space station in 2024. This will both validate its modular technology—Axiom has partnered with Thales Alenia Space to construct its habitats—and provide quarters for its visiting private astronauts. Future modules will follow in the 2020s, as early as 2028, before the Axiom space station will separate and become its own free-flying entity.
The other space station companies will have to develop “free flying” space stations, complete with all the power and other consumables they need to function, from the outset. Axiom, by contrast, will benefit from having some basic services (like power) from the International Space Station at the beginning.