NASA vet and space mogul aim to build a 97% cheaper space station

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Feb 3, 2022, 10:45:17 AMFeb 3
(The ISS / International Space Station will retire
and crash around the year 2030. This is a plan
to have a new and economical station in space.)


NASA vet and space mogul aim to build a 97% cheaper space station

Feb. 2, 2022 at 12:30 pm Updated Feb. 2, 2022 at 8:43 pm

A computer rendering showing the Axiom Space Station in orbit. “Axiom
Station, the world’s first commercial space station, is designed as the
foundational infrastructure enabling a diverse economy in orbit,” says
Michael Suffredini, Axiom President/CEO. Axiom plans to put the station
into its own orbit before the existing space station retires in 2030.
(Axiom Space)


If Michael Suffredini is to get the price tag of the first private space
station down to $3 billion — compared with the $100 billion it cost to
build the International Space Station — the CEO of Houston-based Axiom
Space has some decisions to make about what to outsource and what to
build in-house.

“Building a potty is a simple concept,” said Suffredini, as he stood in
cowboy boots and a blazer in front of a Styrofoam mock-up of a space
toilet that can extract water from urine for reuse. “But it’s a hard
thing to do.” Nearby, a team labored around a wooden replica of the
station’s hexagonal shell turned on its side, with diagrams and sketches
posted on the plywood interior.

Axiom, founded in 2016 by Suffredini and space entrepreneur Kam
Ghaffarian, stands out among the handful of space startups trying to
build the first commercial space station, and not just because of
Suffredini’s 30-year NASA career that included a decade of managing the
space-station program.

In 2020, Axiom won the first and only NASA contract to build a
detachable module for the International Space Station. Axiom plans to
eventually build its own station off that module and put it into its own
orbit before the existing station retires in 2030.

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Texas politicians immediately lauded Axiom’s deal — U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz
called it a sign of “continuing American leadership in space.” Last
December, NASA awarded $416 million in contracts to three more
contenders to build free-flying space stations. The groups included Jeff
Bezos’ Kent-based Blue Origin, which partnered with Sierra Space to
build a station featuring a cargo landing strip and 3-floor habitation
modules with gardens; Aerospace contractor Northrup Grumman; and
Nanoracks’s Starlab, featuring a robotic arm for cargo and a large
inflatable habitat designed by Lockheed Martin.

Axiom figures it can bring down the cost of a space station
significantly, largely due to advances in technology that allow for
smaller components that reduce costs of blasting them to space and
storing them. On the cluttered ISS, many components were added to the
exterior, requiring costly spacewalks for maintenance.

“The International Space Station was built when we were still trying to
figure out how to keep humans alive in space, so they were very, very
conservative,” said Suffredini, who speaks with the slightest hint of a
Texas twang. He expects $3 billion will cover Axiom’s first four modules
and a power tower.

Andy Lapsa, a former engineer for Blue Origin and co-founder of Stoke
Space, which delivers satellites to space with reusable rockets, said
the competition for a commercial station in low-earth orbit is just one
facet of the boom in space funding as the first tourists reached space
last year.

“Jeff [Bezos] for a long time talked about an entrepreneurial explosion
in space,” he said. “You’re starting to see that now. There’s more than
one winner.”

But Axiom has a significant advantage over its competitors: It will be
able to rely on its employees’ expertise with the ISS and — more
importantly — its power source. On the other hand, it also faces more
stringent security requirements than free-flying space stations, at
least while it’s still attached to the ISS, according to Angela Hart,
manager of NASA’s commercial low-earth orbit development program.

If all goes as planned, Suffredini says the goal for the second half of
the century is cities in orbit, with schools, stores, ponds and parks
spinning around to create artificial gravity with centrifugal force —
not unlike the station in Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive officer of Axiom
Space, speaks during a Bloomberg TV interview in San Francisco on Jan.
27, 2017. (David Paul Morris / Bloomberg)

While working at NASA, he met Ghaffarian, who was a contractor for the
agency. “When Kam and I got together and started talking about different
options, ultimately we kind of settled on what I knew about, which was
building space stations.”

The Iranian-born space mogul now has a trio of startups working toward
different aspects of colonizing space. He began seed-funding Axiom when
he still owned contractor Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, the
second-biggest provider of engineering services to NASA, which he sold
in 2018 for $355 million.

Axiom’s series B round was led by C5 Capital and includes Declaration
Partners, the family office of billionaire David Rubenstein. After
reaching a valuation of $740 million in February, according to
PitchBook, the company is now looking to close a C round, and is also
considering an IPO or a SPAC.

Axiom has tripled its head count at its 14-acre Houston headquarters to
392, and will aim to get to 600 in the coming year. Recent hires include
Tejpaul Bhatia, who helped build the startup ecosystem for Google Cloud,
as chief revenue officer.

In order to make money, Axiom will also offer space tourism, though it
says most of its revenues would eventually come from companies and
industries taking advantage of a microgravity environment. U.K.-based
studio Space Entertainment Enterprise, which is producing Tom Cruise’s
upcoming space movie, announced on Jan. 20 a deal with Axiom to build an
in-orbit studio.

Axiom slated its first entry to space for February, but recently moved
it to March 31, due to additional spacecraft preparations and
space-station traffic. For its first mission to the ISS in March, the
crew includes American real estate mogul Larry Connor, Canadian
entrepreneur Mark Pathy and Israeli tycoon Eytan Stibbe. The trip is
costing each of them $55 million, according to Ghaffarian. It would be
the first private astronaut mission in which the transportation vehicle
is also private, according to NASA’s Hart. Axiom contracted SpaceX for
the launch, and has become the biggest private client of Elon Musk’s
space startup with four missions contracted.

For Ghaffarian, creating an economy in low-earth orbit, and eventually
on the Moon, is just the first step. “For the species’ survival, it’s
better to be interplanetary,” he said.

Suffredini says the company has been working to convince investors that
the mission can be accomplished. “We’re doing two things: building a
follow-on space station but also helping to build a market,” he said.

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