NASA has selected Axiom Space, a Houston-based company, as the provider for the International Space Station’s first habitable commercial module. NASA sees this as a first step towards fostering the growth of a “low-Earth orbit economy” and “the development of independent commercial destinations”.
In other words, NASA is keen on building a space hotel — but whoever wants a trip to the space station will have to fetch a lot of cash.
Companies like SpaceX or Boeing have made tremendous advances to the commercial space industry in the past decade, especially when it comes to reducing costs. There are now reliable reusable launch systems that have slashed costs several-fold and, soon enough, we’ll have manned crewed capsules capable of sending astronauts into space. However, these developments are geared towards the enterprise segment. There’s a huge untapped potential market in the business to consumer segment of commercial space flight — and a Texas startup called Axiom Space is poised to be one of the first to exploit it.
On Monday, Axiom signed a deal with NASA that will oversee the development of a new commercial module, which will attach to the space station’s Node 2 forward port.
“Congratulations to Axiom Space! This is not only a win for Texas, Johnson Space Center, and the International Space Station, it is also a great step forward for NASA as we move towards an increased commercial presence in low-Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin of Texas. “I am proud to see this work coming to Space City – Houston, Texas – as the Lone Star State continues to lead in space exploration well into the future.”
“NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. “I’m proud Axiom will continue to build upon Texas’ legacy of leading the nation in human space exploration.”
According to NASA, the federal space agency will soon enter negotiations with Axiom to set the terms and price of services under a contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year option.
A “space hotel” is one of five important targets in NASA’s plan to open up the International Space Station to commercial opportunities. The other elements include opening up the station’s crew and resources for commercial use, enabling private astronaut missions to the station, pursuing opportunities and marketing long-term demand for these services, and quantifying long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit.
These plans are starting to develop as NASA focuses on its more ambitious goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024, a mission where American commercial companies are also expected to play a major role.
“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,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration. 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.”
The “Axiom Segment” of the ISS will include a research & manufacturing facility, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory. The module is expected to dock with the station in the latter half of 2024.
Alright, now for the question on everybody’s mind: How much will it cost a civilian to visit the space station and possibly spend some nights there?
Since the partnership has just barely started, no one knows for sure how much this might cost. However, Axiom CEO Mike Suffredini told the New York Timesthat a vacation on the space station might cost upwards of $50 million, which he views as a “bargain”.
Axiom has also confirmed that they plan to separate the Axiom segment from the ISS once the station nears the end of its life, which is still uncertain at this point. Axiom plans to launch a “Large Power Platform” to the Axiom segment before this happens, then separate the segment from the station to act as its own individual station called “Axiom Station”.