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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