- NASA wants to deorbit the International Space Station before the end of this decade.
- The space agency and Congress want a commercial replacement in orbit before the ISS is trashed in the Pacific Ocean.
- Axiom Space, a startup founded by a former NASA executive, is working to build, launch, and assemble “AxStation,” an all-private outpost.
- Michael López-Alegría – a former NASA astronaut and Axioms’ vice president of business development – says use of the new station would cost a fraction of the $US3.5 billion NASA spends each year.
- “That just makes good economic sense,” López-Alegría told Insider, noting NASA could use the savings on deeper-space exploration of the moon, Mars, and beyond.
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After 20 years of continual human habitation, the International Space Station â€” a football field-size laboratory that zips around Earth a more than 17,000 mph â€” is at a crossroads.
On one hand, SpaceX is starting to fill up the station with full crews of astronauts, who are conducting scores of new scientific experiments and helping NASA finally realise the full potential of the ISS. On the other hand, the facility is no spring chicken: Congress wants it be vacated and destroyed by the end of 2030.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s outgoing administrator, has championed a commercial replacement. The idea is to help a private company to build, launch, test, and assemble modules into a new facility before the ISS is deorbited into the “spacecraft graveyard” in the Pacific Ocean.
But if all goes according to plan for Axiom Space, the fast-growing private aerospace company will manage to stave off that future and continue a strong and continuous US presence in low-Earth orbit. In turn, NASA could save billions for year while having access to a new, state-of-the-art facility.
“It costs NASA $US3.5 billion a year, not to mention what the other agencies are providing [to operate and maintain the ISS],”Michael LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa, Axiom’s vice president of business development and a former NASA astronaut, recently told Insider. “They’d like to spend some of that money on deeper-space exploration, with the Artemis program or whatever the next administration decides.”
Of that annual pile of cash, NASA spends about $US500 million on science and technology development.
“If they can rent a room in a hotel rather than owning the hotel, it’s going to be less expensive for them, and they can continue to have the same benefits that they’re reaping now at a fraction of the cost,” LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa said. “That just makes good economic sense.”
‘There’s no question it has to be deorbited’
The first piece of the ISS, a Russian module named Zarya, launched to space in 1998. Two years later, crew members began the continuous habitation of the facility.
NASA planned to keep the facility in orbit for 15 years, but said it could last 30 if needed. NASA and its international partners think that window can be stretched at least two more years, to 2030, though LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa said “there’s no question it has to be deorbited” eventually, and with intention.
“We can’t just let it decay naturally, because if it comes in uncontrolled, it has a very good chance to hurt somebody. We had that scare with the Mir [space station], and we got lucky,” he said. “This is a much, much bigger vehicle and big pieces are going to survive to the ground. If that’s not done carefully, it’s going to be a bad day.”
Before that happens, Axiom hopes to make good on a $US140 million contract the company has with NASA to attach at least one new module to the ISS. From there, Axiom plans to launch more and more sections.
“In 2024, we attach our first module to the front of the ISS, followed by two more at six-month intervals,” said LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa, who is also preparing to be the first commander of an all-private crewed spaceflight. The mission, called Ax-1, aims to fly three paying passengers to the ISS aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spaceship in late 2021 â€” likely including Tom Cruise.
“Five years from now, we’ll be flying not to the ISS anymore, but to the Axiom segments of the ISS,” LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa said.
Axiom calls the project AxStation, and the final version will have its own power, water, robotic arm, and other systems to operate independently of the ISS. Between 2028 and 2030, Axiom hopes to detach AxStation from the ISS and strike out on its own.
“That’s what has to happen when we have a proven, commercially viable successor,” LÃ³pez-AlegrÃa said. “That means NASA and the other four space agencies can transition what they’re doing to a new platform owner and get rid of the ISS.”
AxStation is not guaranteed to happen, of course. Like the ISS, it will consume large amounts of capital to establish. So far, Congress has rebuffed the $US150 million-a-year requests of the Trump administration to begin paying for one. In the 2020 NASA budget, appropriators marked down about $US17 million.
But Axiom may not need too many handouts, according to Matt Ondler, Axiom’s chief technology officer. In fact, he told Aerospace America that the $US140 million Axiom will receive from NASA is for “data and lessons learned” from designing, building, and launching the first module.
“Our space station is completely funded through investment, through revenue that we generate from our business, and so it will be owned by Axiom Space and wholly operated by Axiom Space,” Ondler told the outlet.