NASA Picks Axiom Space for Commercial LEO Module

NASA Picks Axiom Space for Commercial LEO Module

NASA selected Axiom Space to build a commercial module for the International Space Station (ISS) today.  It is a step towards NASA’s goal of commercializing low Earth orbit (LEO) by facilitating companies like Axiom to build their own space facilities so in the future NASA can lease services rather than own and operate LEO infrastructure.

NASA solicited bids through its NextSTEP-2 Broad Agency Announcement (BAA).  Appendix I offered companies the chance to dock a module at a port on ISS Node 2 (Harmony), but with the longer term plan of separating it to create a free-flying commercially owned and operated space station.

Today NASA called it a “commercial destination module” and said this was the first, suggesting others are in the offing.

Mike Suffredini, President, CEO and Co-Founder, Axiom Space. Credit: University of Texas at Austin website.

Axiom Space was co-founded by Mike Suffredini, who retired from NASA in 2015 after a long career that included 10 years (2005-2015) as ISS program manager, and Kam Ghaffarian, whose engineering services company, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT), provided astronaut training and ISS management services to NASA.

SGT was bought by KBR in 2018, which now provides those services and is part of the Axiom Space team.  Other team members include Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines, Maxar Technologies, and Boeing, which was the ISS prime contractor and still provides key engineering support services.

The plan is for Axiom to launch its module, the Axiom Segment, in 2024.  At some point in the future before ISS is decommissioned, it will launch a large power platform and move the module from ISS to the platform for continued operations as a commercial space station.

Artist’s illustration of the Axiom Segment attached to the ISS. Credit: Axiom Space

A date for decommissioning ISS has not been determined.  At the moment, the ISS partners — the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency — are committed to operations through 2024, but NASA authorization bills pending in Congress would extend the U.S. commitment to 2028 (H.R. 5666) or 2030 (S. 2800).

NASA is making a full court press to commercialize crewed space facilities in LEO because it will need access to such facilities for years to come, but ISS will not last forever and there are no plans for the U.S. government to build another.  The first ISS modules are already more than 20 years old. Boeing asserts the primary structural hardware is good through 2030, but that is just 10 years away.  ISS operations also are very expensive, $3-4 billion per year.  NASA is hoping other customers will emerge and it can lease only what it needs for much less.

Suffredini said today that “Axiom exists to provide the infrastructure in space for a variety of users to conduct research, discover new technologies, test new systems for exploration of the Moon and Mars, manufacture superior products for use in orbit and on the ground, and ultimately improve life back on Earth.”

How much it will cost remains to be seen.  NASA said it now will begin negotiations with Axiom on the terms and conditions of a firm fixed-price contract with a base performance period of 5 years plus a 2-year option.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine described it as a partnership similar to the commercial crew program where NASA shared development costs with its two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, and guaranteed the purchase of a certain amount of services.  Neither NASA nor the companies have publicly revealed how much of the commercial crew development costs were borne by the government, but estimates are in the 80-90 percent range.

Axiom Space is based in Texas and NASA’s announcement included praise from key members of the Texas congressional delegation: Senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Rep. Brian Babin.  Cruz chairs the Senate subcommittee that authorizes NASA activities and Babin is the Ranking Member on its House counterpart.

Nonetheless, Congress appropriated only a fraction of the money NASA requested for its commercial LEO effort in FY2020: $15 million instead of $150 million.

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