NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS


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Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

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7 comments

  • Jerry Greenwood

    “, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” DITTO!

  • David Birchler

    It actually isn’t so clear cut; Bigelow did not pursue the contract.

  • John

    The key to commercial working is open competition. This is just NASA leadership finally realizing they can get rich also, instead of only giving the money to former generals over at Boeing. Expect a revolving door of former NASA bureaucrats.

  • Richard M

    Bigelow also has its own problems, problems NASA is aware of: huge turnover in staff, and a corporate work environment described by some as toxic.

    Which does not negate anything you’ve said here, Bob: it undoubtedly was the case that all of connections Axiom has brought on board helped them a great deal in getting the deal. NASA feels comfortable working with them.

    That said, this may be the last time this is a concern for commercial development of LEO. Any future U.S. commercial stations will be independent of ISS, and thus less reliant on NASA’s good graces or even its funding.

  • Edward

    Robert wrote: “In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

    Maybe, but I suspect that NASA chose a company that needs actual flight time on its hardware over Bigelow, which already has flight time on its hardware. Bigelow is almost certain to have a free-flying space habitat in space and operational in two or three years. If that habitat proves to be popular with experimenters or tourists, then I expect more to follow soon after.

    Choosing Axiom tells me that NASA is willing to spread around the knowledge and experience that future companies will need in order to turn space into a commercial success rather than focus only on the most successful current company.

    I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

    I’m not quite so worried about this. From the article: “Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, … Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines.

    In addition to Boeing, Thales Alenia Space also has experience building ISS modules.

    Add in the four experienced former NASA leaders, and I think Axiom is a company that has the enthusiasm to succeed and has brought onboard the technical know-how and facilities to get the job done.

    Ixion is another potential space habitat manufacturer, but its idea is to turn expended upper stages into space habitats. This may need more time for development than NASA is willing to wait, right now. Sierra Nevada sounds interested in this same industry, but since their announcement is recent, it seems that either they were not available to join the competition or that they were not yet mature enough to win.

    John,
    This is not the first company to get former NASA people or to be formed by former NASA people. Most of the people at NASA are dedicated to aerospace, rather than thinking of it as just a job. When they leave NASA, other than for retirement, I would expect these people to go to aerospace companies where they can put their experience, knowledge, and skills to use for aviation or space innovation or exploration.

  • Mentat101

    Bigelow did not pursue this contract, at all. They could not have been chosen because they did not put their hat in the ring.

    The company is also is chronically understaffed for serious efforts and definitely has what you would call a toxic work environment.

  • Dick Eagleson

    Edward,

    You’re correct that Axiom is not the first company founded by ex-high-ranking-NASAns. The erstwhile Rocketplane-Kistler was not such a company, but was taken over by a management team with the same sort of curricula vitae as the bosses at Axiom and, after much of the original engineering crew departed and was replaced, proceeded to execute a controlled flight into terrain. Career bureaucrats have no particularly impressive record as businesspeople except in the matter of exploiting connections with their former governmental agencies.

    The history to-date of charter schools in CA shows this same pattern to a fairly considerable degree. Most have been stood up by people with long records in the dysfunctional public schools here who simply wanted to chase even bigger potential paydays than just their former salaries and pensions. Only charters run by out-of-state entities seem to be notably better than the generally wretched run of typical CA public schools.

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