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Private company to offer tourist trips to its own facility on ISS

Capitalism in space: The private company Axiom has announced that it will offer tourist trips to its own facility it will add to ISS, and then eventually detach when the station is retired.

Axiom’s timeline has some flex, because it’s not yet clear how long the larger station will keep going, or what the assembly schedule will be for the company’s custom-built habitation module. But a weekend feature about the project in The New York Times cited 2022 as the supposed opening date.

In addition to the 10-day orbital stay, the $55 million would cover a 15-week training experience on Earth. Axiom is targeting space tourists as well as researchers and entrepreneurs who want to develop in-space manufacturing facilities.

Is this doable? Axiom isn’t yet laying out the complete logistical details, but the company will almost certainly rely on the likes of SpaceX and Boeing, which are developing space taxis for NASA’s use. Once those spaceships go into operation, sometime in the 2018-2019 period, there’s likely to be excess transportation capacity that Axiom could buy into.

This is the future of ISS, a privately run hotel. The Russians have announced a similar plan, attaching a module to ISS that will be designed as a hotel room for tourists. I expect others will eventually do the same. Once these profitable operations take hold, I guarantee that ISS will not be retired. There will be vested interests who will apply the right political pressure to keep it in orbit.

Will that be a good thing? It depends. From a taxpayer perspective, it might not be. ISS is very expensive to operate. Privately built and independent stations would be much cheaper, and would not involve any federal subsidy. At the same time, these private stations might not be doable at affordable prices in the near term. Maintaining ISS for these private companies might in this case be a very reasonably use of federal funds. As the profits rise, the companies will eventually be able to afford building their own stations that will serve their needs better than ISS. That will then be the time to retire ISS, when other private and profitable stations are there, ready to replace it.

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  • Fred K

    The last NASA/ISS yearly budget I saw had about 1.6 billion spent on transportation/resupply.

    Also, about 1 billion on “operations”. Does anyone know how this 1 billion is spent? Are they funding all of Johnson SC with this? Sending extra money to Russia beside the seat price on Soyuz?

    ISS is a large financial black hole. Nanoracks and Axiom want to leverage some of this federal NASA money to support part of their business. As a taxpayer, I’m inclined to encourage them to fund themselves.

  • Fred K: I agree with you that private companies should not hang on federal funds. However, we have this lead weight called ISS that is draining the taxpayer and will not be easily retired. Too many powerful people in both Congress and the private sector support it.

    By finding a way to transition to private and profitable operations, we might provide a path for eventually getting rid of that weight. Once tourism operations become profitable, competition will force these private companies to want to upgrade their hotel facilities in space, and ISS will not be a good vehicle for doing that. They will build their own stations, and ISS will then become redundant.

    I admit this might be a naive on my part, but I have seen this happen elsewhere. Moreover, eventually ISS will become old and outdated. New hotels in space, privately financed, will have to replace it.

  • Col Beausabre

    It’s called “rent seeking”

    It often relies on “regulatory capture”

    I come from New Jersey where there was a classic example back when railroads were young – the Camden & Amboy were given a government sanctioned monopoly;

    “An act passed February 4, 1831 gave the C&A monopoly powers for nine years against railroads built within three miles of the C&A, in exchange for the state receiving 1000 shares of stock. The Protection Act, passed March 2, 1832, expanded this to give the Joint Companies a monopoly on New York City-Philadelphia traffic across New Jersey. On March 16, 1854 this exclusive right was extended to January 1, 1869, as long as the C&A helped other railroads including the West Jersey Railroad and double-tracked its main line.”

    And today, Export-Import Bank – designed to help small firms engage in international trade is often referred to as The First Bank of Boeing for the massive loans it grants to that giant firm. But you don’t have to be Boeing…how about your neighborhood beauty salon….

    And people wonder why the swamp needs to be drained…

  • wodun

    Maybe someone who tracks this stuff could speak up but the ISS only has so many open nodes. There are other companies who have expressed interest in latching onto the ISS, so a single company could block out competitors. Perhaps they need a time limit that forces companies to fly on their own after a period of testing/operations.

    It is a good idea to expand the ISS like this though. Not only could expansions be used for tourists/researchers but NASA could fly more astronauts so that more NASA research could be done since so much time is required right now just for maintenance.

  • Steve Cooper

    After seeing the difference between SpaceX development and SLS development, I wonder what it would cost for the private sector to take over managing ISS.

  • Edward

    Steve Cooper,
    No one knows, at this point, but it may be possible for the private sector to take over ISS management. There are companies interested in trying:

    From the linked article:

    Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.”

    A problem that the private sector would face in taking over managing ISS is the cost that is inherent in the design. For instance, the electrical distribution system has many parts and nodes. They were built to be new designs for test in a hostile environment, thus they are robust (read: “expensive”), and they are difficult to reach, requiring a spacewalk to repair many of the parts and nodes. Many lessons have been learned from space stations that have been flown, from Salyut 1 to Skylab to MIR and now ISS and Tiangong 2. Commercial space will benefit greatly from those lessons, allowing them to spend less money because many of the technologies and techniques have already been proved.

    If a commercial company were to design a space station (and there are several doing so), they would design it differently so that the equipment would be less expensive, less extensive, and easier and cheaper to repair or replace than on ISS.

    The goals of NASA and commercial space differ. NASA explores new ideas, and commercial space makes those ideas affordable and profitable. It would be expensive and difficult to replace the NASA equipment, but maybe there are new techniques that can help make operating and maintaining ISS less expensive. Exploring new ideas tends to be expensive, because the test articles are not made to be as efficient as a production model would be. Because ISS was made to be more of a test article than a product, it was not made to be cheap to build, operate, or maintain. Political factors also caused it to be far, far more expensive than was originally intended. Eventually, this test article will become obsolete. It is unfortunate, but true. Unlike Skylab, we do not have a duplicate that can be put in the Smithsonian.

    An example of the different goals is between the high cost of each NASA ISS module and the relatively low cost of each Bigelow expandable module. NASA had invented the expandable module concept and considered using it for the ISS, but chose to go with the already proved hard shell module design, making each module unique as suitable for its purpose on the station. Bigelow (not NASA) spent the money to prove the expandable module concept and developed it into an inexpensive production habitat that is suitable as a stand-alone unit for manned missions. Bigelow already has three test articles in space, two stand-alone unmanned habitats and one attached to ISS. All three will soon be obsolete.

    Bigelow is proposing to build future commercial space stations with expandable modules, whereas other companies are proposing to use the hard shell design. Both concepts are being designed to be far less expensive to build, operate, and maintain than the ISS, and that makes it more difficult for a commercial company to make a good business case for managing the station.

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