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Sunday, April 14, 2024

What Comes After the International Space Station?

For the past two decades, the International Space Station has been humanity’s home away from home. It’s hosted hundreds of astronauts from 18 countries. It’s served as the platform for groundbreaking science experiments that have fundamentally changed our understanding of human biology, climate change, and the universe itself. It’s been a proving ground for futuristic technologies like organs on a chip and quantum communication terminals, and it's fostered the birth of a vibrant commercial space industry. The ISS is arguably the best thing we’ve ever done. But all good things must come to an end.

The ISS will mark 20 years of continuous human occupation on Saturday, but it’s unlikely to last another 20 years. Funding for the space station is scheduled to dry up this decade, although exactly when that will happen is still unclear. NASA and the agency’s international partners have guaranteed support for the ISS until 2024, and some supporters in Congress have advocated extending the agency’s space station budget through 2028. What happens next is anyone's guess, but there’s a good chance it will involve scrapping the ISS and using privately operated commercial space stations instead.

“I think now is the right time to start moving away from the International Space Station, which is really just a government monopoly on space destinations, and moving them over to the private sector,” says Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA. “It’s time for NASA to start setting its sights toward deep space exploration and letting entrepreneurs move in behind us.”

Over the past few years, NASA has been pushing hard to stoke commercial interest in the space station. Last year, the agency declared the ISS open for business at the Nasdaq stock exchange. The Trump administration floated the idea of a subsidy to help transition the ISS to a commercial operator. The logic is simple: NASA officials want to build moon bases and send astronauts to Mars, which is hard to do when the agency has to shell out nearly a fifth of its annual budget to keep the lights on at the ISS. Still, NASA needs a crewed research platform in low earth orbit to test the technologies that will keep humans alive on other worlds. By leaning on private industry to build and operate new space stations, NASA can focus its efforts on pushing humans deeper into space.

“NASA has been very open about the fact that in order to do exploration beyond low earth orbit, you have to have a platform there to test systems and get experience,” says Michael Suffredini, the cofounder and CEO of Axiom Space, a company that is poised to build the world’s first commercial space station. “The US government saw early on that to do exploration it couldn't afford the next space station. And so that's why we’re building one to replace the International Space Station after it retires.”

Earlier this year, NASA awarded Axiom the right to attach one of its own crew modules to a docking port on the ISS—and a $140 million contract to make it happen. The company’s plan is to launch its first module to the space station by 2024 and expand from there. In addition to the crew habitation module, Suffredini says Axiom is planning for at least two others: One will be a laboratory and manufacturing facility, and the other will be a panoramic observatory similar to the ISS cupola. The company’s plan is to leave the three modules attached to the ISS until it’s ready to be retired, which Suffredini expects to be around 2028. Once the world decides to pull the plug on the ISS, Axiom’s private habitat will detach itself and become the world’s first commercial free-flying space station.

From the outside, the design of Axiom’s space station looks remarkably similar to the ISS. The cylindrical modules are about 15 meters in diameter and are connected to the station like giant Tinker Toys. The reason for this, says Suffredini, is to take advantage of the space industry’s familiarity with the ISS. One of Axiom’s main contractors to build its modules, the European aerospace company Thales Alenia Space, also built nearly half of the modules for the ISS. Axiom’s station is also constrained by the size of existing launch vehicles. As bigger rockets come along, such as SpaceX’s Starship, it could make larger space stations possible. For example, Suffredini says Axiom is exploring the idea of using inflatable modules in the future. These would be similar to NASA’s TransHab, an inflatable ISS module concept the agency developed in the 1990s before the project was canceled by Congress. Axiom’s modules may be spherical or toroidal, and the diameter of each one could be up to three times larger than a conventional hard-shell model.

Suffredini expects Axiom’s station to be used by a variety of customers; like the ISS, it will serve as a research platform for government space agencies and commercial companies. It will also be a destination for the first wave of space tourists, which is why Axiom made the interior far more luxe than the austere accommodations of the ISS. The crew module’s decor was dreamed up by the famed interior designer Phillipe Starck and will come with plush padded walls, panoramic windows, and color-changing LEDs. But Axiom isn’t waiting for an arrival in orbit to stand up its space tourism business. Shortly after securing its docking port from NASA, the company inked a deal with SpaceX to send four private astronauts—one of whom turned out to be Tom Cruise, who will be shooting a movie on the station—to the ISS by the end of next year.

It’s an ambitious program for such a small company. Axiom has fewer than 100 employees, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in experience. Prior to cofounding Axiom, Suffredini spent a decade working at NASA as the program manager for the ISS, and he says this experience will help Axiom succeed where others have failed. And there have been a lot of plans for private space stations that never came to fruition.

The idea for commercial space stations is almost as old as the Space Age itself. Years before Buzz and Neil took their giant leap, hoteliers and defense contractors were making plans for orbital Hiltons and 100-person space stations. In the 1960s, a bustling ecosystem of humans living and working in orbit seemed just a few decades away. But building large space stations turned out to be harder and more expensive than anyone imagined.

Before the ISS was even a twinkle in NASA’s eye, the agency made its first foray into extraterrestrial hospitality with SkyLab, which could host up to three astronauts for weeks at a time. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Russia built a series of small space stations—first Salyut and then Mir. It was a start, but it wasn’t exactly Space Station V, the giant wheel in orbit portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NASA’s Skylab hosted only three astronaut crews before the agency allowed it to burn up in the atmosphere in the summer of 1979. Everything in orbit eventually falls back to earth, and Skylab didn’t have a way to maintain its altitude without the space shuttle, which didn’t take its maiden flight until 1981. But NASA hadn’t given up on the idea of a space station. The next year the agency stood up a Space Station Task Force to start design work on its next-generation orbital outpost, Freedom. This station was intended to host up to eight astronauts at a time and would have been built with contributions from Canada, Japan, and several European countries. The station looked remarkably similar to what would become the ISS; in fact, NASA says that around 75 percent of the hardware designs for the International Space Station were originally for Freedom.

From the very beginning, Freedom was conceptualized as a springboard for the commercialization of low earth orbit. In a 1982 memo, NASA administrator James Beggs wrote that he was “absolutely convinced that a space station is the next bold step in space” and that “it is an essential piece of our long-range plan to reap the full commercial and scientific benefits of space.” But Freedom wasn’t meant to be. After a decade of work, NASA engineers had blown through billions of dollars and still hadn’t settled on a design for the station. Congress was over it. In 1993, NASA’s space station program avoided cancellation by a single vote.

The Clinton administration’s answer to the problem was to scrap Freedom and pursue a space station in partnership with larger contributions from other countries to lower the cost. The Cold War was winding down, which created a political environment favorable to cooperation on such a potent symbol of international harmony. Russia quickly signed on to the idea, abandoning plans for its own national space station, Mir-2, and so did Europe and Japan. After decades of plodding progress toward a large-scale space station, the first component of the ISS was launched in November 1998. Less than two years later, the station hosted its first occupants.

Almost as soon as NASA started seriously considering a space station, the private sector began looking for ways to get involved. In 1982, a former NASA engineer started a company called Space Industries and quickly inked a memorandum of understanding with the agency to develop an uncrewed space station called the Industrial Space Facility. But plans for the space station fell apart after the company struggled to find a sufficient number of customers and congressional subsidies for the project failed to materialize.

Hoteliers were also paying attention. After floating some ideas for orbital hotels and lunar getaways at space conferences in the late 1960s, designers for Hilton Hotels revived the company’s space station dreams just before the new millennium with plans for a large rotating circular space station built from spent space shuttle boosters. The idea was called Space Islands, but it doesn’t appear to have moved beyond a conceptual stage. A few years later, Robert Bigelow, whose ownership of Budget Suite Hotels turned him into a titan of the hospitality industry, also announced his intention to create a space station in orbit. Bigelow made it as far as launching an inflatable module to the ISS for tests in 2016, but earlier this year his space company, Bigelow Aerospace, laid off all of its employees. (Representatives from Hilton Hotels and Bigelow Aerospace did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have a lot of experience living and working in microgravity,” says McAlister. “When we were starting to talk about a commercial space station, there wasn’t much economic activity in low earth orbit. No one really knew what kinds of markets were going to exist, much less which ones would be profitable. I think we might have been a little ahead of the game.”

Suffredini is optimistic that Axiom can succeed where others have failed. He says his experience managing the ISS program exposed him to all the areas where it was possible to dramatically reduce the cost of building and operating an orbital outpost. For example, pretty much everything used to build the ISS is a space-qualified component, which means it has to meet a rigorous set of engineering standards and test results to ensure that it will work properly in orbit. But Suffredini says that in a lot of cases—particularly inside the pressurized ISS modules—using space-qualified components is unnecessary, and commercial off-the-shelf parts work fine. “You don’t always have to buy the space-qualified fan,” says Suffredini. “The ISS taught us what we don’t have to do.”

Axiom also has the advantage of being able to use the ISS as a jumping-off point, a luxury that wasn’t available until NASA decided to give away one of its docking ports a few years ago. This allows the company to slowly build its space station in a piecemeal fashion, rather than all at once. In fact, Axiom won’t launch its own power module into orbit until just before it’s ready to disconnect from the ISS. Until then, it will be relying on the ISS for powering its life support systems, which takes some of the risk out of testing the new module. It also allows the company to start generating revenue by flying astronauts and payloads to its own module before it has a stand-alone station, which can ease the substantial upfront costs of building it.

“It's capital intensity plus market uncertainty that makes building and operating a station so challenging,” says Carissa Christensen, the CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a consultancy focused on the space sector. “But with the team it’s built, the expertise it has, and the financial support it appears to have, Axiom is very well positioned.”

Axiom may be the first company to build a private space station that will make it to orbit, but is unlikely to be the last. Jeff Bezos has said he started Blue Origin with the intention of laying the foundation for a space economy that allows millions of people to live and work beyond earth. Earlier this year, the company posted a job opening for an “Orbital Habitat Formulation Lead,” which indicates the company is getting serious about creating a space station in low earth orbit. (Blue Origin representatives did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) And there will still be government-run space stations after the ISS, too. China has launched two small space stations called Tiangong 1 and 2 to test the hardware its national space agency will use to build a larger station later this decade.

In the future, Suffredini imagines that low earth orbit will be filled with space stations and that many of those will dwarf the ISS. After Axiom gets its first station built, he said, the next steps will involve building bespoke stations for companies that want to manufacture their wares in orbit. In 50 years, Suffredini hopes, the company will have a large rotating space station complete with parks, schools, and shopping centers to host not just professional astronauts but also their families. He envisions a spinning station that creates artificial gravity in the outer ring with a non-spinning hub in the center used for microgravity research. There are still significant engineering challenges that need to be addressed to control this kind of station, and the cost of space access would have to drop significantly to get that much material to orbit. But for Suffredini, these are the sorts of problems the world needs to embrace if we’re ever going to extend humanity’s reach into the solar system.

“We want to head toward this place where we’re really settling low earth orbit,” Suffredini says. “The evolution from exploration to settling is what has to happen for humanity to take the next great step and permanently live off the planet. That’s the long-term vision of what we’re doing.”

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