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Axiom station
Axiom Space envisions installing several commercial modules on the International Space Station, which will form the core of a future commercial free-flying space station. (credit: Axiom Space)

Making the funding case for commercial space stations

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When NASA released its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal two weeks ago, most of the attention devoted to it—from politicians, the press, and the public—was on the parts related to the Artemis program for returning humans to the Moon by 2024. That includes more than $3 billion to work on human lunar landers, and the first estimate of the cost of achieving that goal: $35 billion through 2024.

What didn’t get nearly as much attention is a program that has been a priority for NASA for longer than an accelerated return to the Moon. In its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal two years ago, NASA proposed ending funding of International Space Station operations in 2025 and announced a new low Earth orbit (LEO) commercialization effort that would seek to develop commercial facilities to serve as successors for the station. Doing so, NASA argued, would free up funding for other human exploration plans at a time when NASA was still targeting a late 2020s return to the Moon.

“It’s a very large glass enclosure that four or five people can fit in,” Suffredini said of the Earth Observatory element of its first commercial module. “It’ll offer an opportunity for 360-degree views of the Earth.”

NASA, facing a Congressional backlash, soon backed away from ending ISS operations in 2025; a number of bills in both the House and Senate have proposed instead extending NASA’s authorization to operate the ISS to 2028 or 2030. The agency has since been refining its commercial LEO program, including offering ports on the ISS for attaching commercial modules and supporting development of “free flyer” commercial space stations (see “NASA tries to commercialize the ISS, again”, The Space Review, June 10, 2019).

The latest step in that effort took place January 27, when NASA announced it had selected Axiom Space as the winner of a competition to gain access to a port on the station’s Node 2, or Harmony, module. Axiom plans to add a series of modules to that port, starting in 2024, that will eventually lead to a free-flying space station after the retirement of the ISS.

Terms of the agreement, beyond it being a five-year agreement with a two-year option, have yet to be worked out. “The focus is on data and demonstration,” said Michael Suffredini, president and CEO of Axiom, in an interview the day after the NASA announcement. A the time of the interview, NASA and Axiom planned to meet to clarify the contract deliverables and value.

Suffredini noted, though, that the focus will be on the first two task orders. Task Order 1 is for “concept verification,” according to the request for proposals last summer, including a series of reviews of Axiom’s technical and business approach, as well as vehicle integration and safety issues. Task Order 2 covers a mission concept review and a system requirements review, both requiring a wide range of technical and other documents, including commercialization roadmaps, export control plans, and information technology security plans.

“It’s so that they’re comfortable with us building something to attach to the ISS,” he said of those reviews.

Suffredini is well aware of NASA’s needs for reviews and verification when it comes to the ISS. He served as program manager for the station at NASA for a decade prior to retiring from NASA in 2015. A year later, he co-founded Axiom with Kam Ghaffarian, who previously led space industry engineering services company Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies. The company has a number of retired astronauts and other former NASA personnel in leadership positions, including Charlie Bolden, the former astronaut and NASA administrator, who is a “business development consultant” for Axiom according to the company’s website.

The NASA award is the first step in the company’s long-term vision for establishing a commercial space station. The company’s current schedule projects the launch of that first commercial module, called AxN1, in late 2024. “That module looks like a node,” Suffredini said, describing it as being similar to the station’s existing Node 2 and Node 3 modules, but one to two meters longer.

That module will also be equipped with the “Earth Observatory,” a larger version of the cupola on the ISS. “It’s a very large glass enclosure that four or five people can fit in,” he said. “It’ll offer an opportunity for 360-degree views of the Earth.”

Axiom will follow up that module with AxH1, a habitation module, in 2025, capable of supporting eight people and equipped with a robotic arm. The following year will be AxRMF, a research and manufacturing facility that Suffredini described as a repurposed multi-purpose logistics module, or MPLM.

That will be the initial configuration of the “Axiom segment” through the retirement of the ISS. Axiom will then launch a power and thermal tower that provides power and thermal control for that segment, allowing it to operate completely independently from the ISS. That segment can then undock from the ISS and operate as a free-flying station after the ISS itself is retired. Suffredini said he preferred a 2028 retirement for the ISS versus alternative proposals to extend the station to 2030.

“Unlike public-private partnerships that attempt to share the costs equally, we are developing this with private funding,” Suffredini said. “It’s the best way to move forward.”

Several companies are working with Axiom on the effort. Maxar Technologies will build the robotic arm for the habitation module, while KBR Wyle will handle operations and training services, as well as medical support work, Suffredini said. Boeing, Intuitive Machines, and Thales Alenia Space will also provide design and other engineering support services.

“Axiom is responsible for the integrated design,” he said. “The other companies will be providing other systems to complete the design to be cost effective.”

Axiom hasn’t shared many details about its business plans, including how much revenue it will generate from its commercial facility. Suffredini said the company is looking at several market segments, from space tourism and “sovereign client” flights of professional astronauts from other nations to manufacturing, research, and advertising and sponsorships.

The company is also keeping quiet on the cost of the station, other than it expects to raise most of the money needed to build the modules. “Unlike public-private partnerships that attempt to share the costs equally, we are developing this with private funding,” he said. “It’s the best way to move forward.”

So far, Axiom has raised small amounts of money to fund its early operations. Suffredini said that, with the NASA award, the company will move ahead with a Series A round of about $100 million. The company started gearing up for the round in January, ahead of the NASA announcement, and he said he hopes to close the round in the summer.

That private funding is essential given the uncertainty about how much NASA will be able to provide. In its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA sought $150 million for LEO commercialization work, but Congress appropriated only $40 million. NASA again sought $150 million in 2020, but Congress allocated just $15 million. NASA’s 2021 request once again sought $150 million, projecting $175 million for the program in 2022 and $200 million a year in fiscal years 2023 through 2025.

Concerns about funding led one competitor to drop out of the competition for a commercial ISS module. Language in the call for proposals said that NASA anticipated spending a combined total of $561 million on both the commercial ISS module solicitation as well as a separate one, yet to released, for a free flyer.

“That was asking just too much” of his company, said Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace, in an interview last month. While Bigelow had long talked about adding a B330 module to the ISS, he said given that funding profile, “we told NASA we had to bow out.”

“There has to be substantial government subsidies for a period of time until industries can stand on their own feet,” said Bigelow of commercial modules and stations.

He suggested NASA might have erred when it made that statement about the overall funding. “They shouldn’t have made the statements that they did regarding that particular number, let’s put it that way,” he said. While NASA has yet to issue a final call for proposals for a free flyer, it said in a response to questions on a draft version that the $561 million is not a “hard constraint” and that companies “should propose what they feel is required to close their business case.”

Bigelow was skeptical that there would be enough business to sustain a commercial space station. “Commercialization isn’t robust at all,” he said, citing the limited commercial activity on the ISS so far. “No single industry is mature enough. There’s not enough there to maintain a large structure and have frequent traffic.”

Any commercial station, he concluded, would need significant NASA subsidies for years. “The mantra is that NASA will be a customer, but not the only customer, and at some point that will work well,” he said, a reference to NASA statements that it wants to be one of many customers for commercial space stations. “It’s just that the pump-priming needs to happen at the inception of that, and there has to be substantial government subsidies for a period of time until industries can stand on their own feet.”

The skepticism shown by Congress of NASA’s LEO commercialization plans, as shown by the major cuts it made in the agency’s proposals in the last two years, could make it difficult for companies to close their business plans to either build or operate commercial ISS modules and full-fledged space stations. That could, in turn, have long-term implications for the affordability of NASA’s human exploration plans, if it can’t minimize its current multi-billion-dollar annual expense of operating the ISS. As the debate about the Artemis program starts up again on Capitol Hill, the future of the ISS, and commercial activities in LEO, can’t be overlooked.

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