Bigelow sues NASA for $1 million

The commercial space station company Bigelow Aerospace has now sued NASA for $1 million, claiming that the agency has refused to pay it for work done.

Bigelow Aerospace said it entered into an agreement with NASA on the B330 project in August 2016 to perform and complete a certain long-term pressure leak test on its prototype. The purpose of the test was to demonstrate that the B330 meets NASA’s standards of construction and reliability.

According to the lawsuit, Bigelow Aerospace was required to perform a leak test on its module and “provide certain periodic test reports” to NASA. The reports were scheduled and were required to summarize the results of the test, specifically whether the B330 had met certain standards set by NASA. “Importantly, the Contract contains no requirement that Bigelow Aerospace had to provide NASA with continuous and/or raw” data, the lawsuit alleges.

Bigelow Aerospace said NASA breached its contract with the agency by refusing to pay the full amount to the company. The company said that its damages are in excess of $1 million because it had to hire attorneys to bring the lawsuit forward.

According to the suit, multiple attempts were made between January and February to demand payment. The lawsuit said that NASA’s attorney requested raw test data from Bigelow’s testing carried out under the contract as a prerequisite of being paid the amount owed. “However, this requirement was not a term of the Contract, and was an attempt by NASA to place additional requirements on Bigelow Aerospace that had not been part of the parties’ agreement,” according to the lawsuit.

Until 2016, when Bigelow’s prototype BEAM module was installed on ISS, this company seemed the world’s unmatched leader in the construction of private commercial space station modules. It had already flown two prototypes successfully, and then built BEAM for NASA in only two years for a mere $17 million.

Since then it seems Bigelow has been stalled by Washington politics and some insider maneuvering at NASA. In January 2020 NASA picked Axiom to build the first commercial operational private modules to be attached to ISS, not Bigelow. I wondered then why Bigelow had been bypassed by a company that had never built anything. Noting how Axiom had numerous NASA insiders in its management, many with links to Boeing, I concluded:
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NASA forges deal with private company to put American on Russian Soyuz

Capitalism in space: It appears NASA used the private company Axiom as its go-between to obtain a seat for an American astronaut on the next Soyuz launch to ISS in April.

The deal is very complex.

Based on the initial partnership arrangement between the Russians and NASA, astronauts for both countries would fly in equal numbers on each other’s spacecraft in a barter arrangement that involved no exchange of funds. Russia however has been balking at flying its astronauts on Dragon, claiming it does not yet meet their standards for a manned spacecraft. Thus, they have been demanding that NASA pay them to fly an American on Soyuz.

NASA meanwhile doesn’t have the funds, but it still wants to make sure there is always an American on board ISS, and to do that requires a second ferry besides Dragon to provide redundancy. With Boeing’s Starliner delayed, they have been trying to get a seat on Soyuz as part of that barter deal, to no avail.

The solution? Private enterprise! To get that Soyuz seat at no cost it appears NASA made a barter deal with the private space company Axiom. Axiom is apparently paying the Russians for a seat on next month’s Soyuz flight, which will be filled by a NASA astronaut, and gets in return from NASA a free spare seat on a later American capsule.

The result? NASA pays nothing to the Russians, and still gets its seat on Soyuz. Where Axiom is getting the financing for its purchase is unclear, but because it is getting an extra seat at no cost that it can sell later for a big profit, I suspect that financing was not difficult to obtain.

The details for Axiom’s deal with Roscosmos have not as yet been revealed, though I am sure the Russians charged Axiom plenty for the seat on Soyuz. I also suspect that amount was far less then what the Russians would have charged NASA directly.

Once Starliner finally becomes operational NASA will have enough redundancy for getting Americans to ISS it will no longer need the Russians. Hopefully that will happen by the end of this year. If so, such shenanigans will no longer be required.

Axiom raises $130 million in investment capital

Capitalism in space: The private space station company Axiom announced today that it has obtained $130 million in investment capital during its most recent round of fund-raising.

The funding will allow the company to expand, including doubling its current workforce of about 110 people this year, Michael Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said in an interview. It will also support quarterly payments to Thales Alenia Space, which is building the pressurized elements of the first modules. The company recently moved into a two-story building in Houston and is buying a new test facility, with plans to establish a campus at Spaceport Houston, also known as Ellington Airport.

“This is a really the major step for us,” he said. “The B round is typically where you get your first large investment, but more importantly than the money is the community of investors that you put together, so that future rounds are largely from those investors.” That group of investors, he said, was “a perfect fit for us and puts us in a good position, however we want to go forward.”

Suffredini also admitted that while helps get those first modules built for launch to ISS in ’24, they will still need “probably between half a billion and a billion dollars” to build their full private space station.

Sounds like a lot, eh? ISS cost about $100 billion, but that is not including the contributions of the U.S.’s international partners. It is also likely a conservative estimate, as it likely does not include any of NASA’s overhead in connection with the station. Construction officially began in 1994, but actually started a decade earlier when President Reagan first proposed its predecessor, the Freedom station, and those costs are not included as well.

So Axiom will build its private station for about a billion, and get it done in about five years. NASA spent anywhere from $100 to $200 billion, and took more than three decades to get it launched and built.

Which product would you buy?

Axiom’s first passengers to ISS paying $55 million each

Capitalism in space: The three non-Axiom employees who will fly as part of the crew for the company’s first private manned mission to ISS are paying $55 million each for the privilege.

The first private space station crew was introduced Tuesday: Three men who are each paying $55 million to fly on a SpaceX rocket. They’ll be led by a former NASA astronaut now working for Axiom Space, the Houston company that arranged the trip for next January.

“This is the first private flight to the International Space Station. It’s never been done before,” said Axiom’s chief executive and president Mike Suffredini, a former space station program manager for NASA. While mission commander Michael Lopez-Alegria is well known in space circles, “the other three guys are just people who want to be able to go to space, and we’re providing that opportunity,” Suffredini told The Associated Press.

The first crew will spend eight days at the space station, and will take one or two days to get there aboard a SpaceX Dragon capsule following liftoff from Cape Canaveral.

The initial press release made it appear that all four men were crew members and not passengers. And though Axiom and these passengers are both continuing to de-emphasize the tourist nature of their flight, claiming they will each be tasked with science research and that it “is 100% not a vacation for these guys,” the simple fact remains that they are paying customers, flying in space for the fun of it.

Why Axiom and these passengers feel obliged to misconstrue the tourist nature of their flight puzzles me. There is no reason for them to be ashamed of their desire to fly in space. Nor should they feel any guilt about having the money that allows them to pay for the privilege. This is what freedom is all about. They earned their wealth, and it now allows them the chance to do something grand. All power to them.

The actual ticket-price is also intriguing. At $55 million it is far more than the $35 million paid by the last tourist flown on a Russian Soyuz to ISS, though less than the $75 to $90 million the Russians were charging NASA. Overall it appears the price per ticket for an orbital flight has gone up, though the emerging competition is likely stabilizing the price at a lower plateau.

The announcement is also interesting in that so little is mentioned of SpaceX. Though the flight has been sold as an Axiom one, this particular tourist flight will depend entirely on SpaceX hardware to get to and from ISS. Axiom has merely acted as the broker for the flight.

Eventually Axiom will have its own in-space habitable space, first attached to ISS as new modules and later flying free as its own space station after ISS is retired. Right now however the real achievement is coming from SpaceX. This detail must be recognized.

Axiom names crew for its first private manned mission to ISS

Capitalism in space: The private company Axiom today revealed the names of the four-person crew that will fly a SpaceX Dragon capsule to ISS on the first wholly private manned spaceflight.

The four members of the Axiom Space Ax-1 crew: Michael Lopez-Alegria, former NASA astronaut, Axiom Space vice president and Ax-1 commander; Larry Connor, U.S. real estate entrepreneur and Ax-1 pilot; Mark Pathy, Canadian investor and philanthropist; and Eytan Stibbe, Israeli businessman and fighter pilot.

The crew of the first entirely-private orbital space mission will include the second oldest person to launch into space, the second Israeli in space, the 11th Canadian to fly into space and the first former NASA astronaut to return to the International Space Station, the company organizing the history-making flight has announced.

The launch date has also been delayed from the fall to early ’22.

It is unclear if these four men are the entire passenger list. Dragon can carry up to seven passagers, and earlier rumors had hinted that Tom Cruise and a movie director were buying two seats on this private mission in order to film scenes for a movie.

It is also unclear why the flight was delayed, other than a suggestion that it was due to scheduling conflicts with getting to ISS.

Nanoracks’ commercial airlock installed on ISS

Capitalism in space: Using the robot arm on ISS, astronauts on December 21st installed Nanoracks’ commercial airlock, dubbed Bishop, in its place on the station.

I think this is the second private module installed on ISS, following Bigelow’s inflatable BEAM module. Bishop is for equipment only, and supplements the equipment airlock on the Japanese Kibo module. It is also five times larger, and rather than use hatches, it deploys equipment outside of ISS using the robot arm. Each time Nanoracks wants to use it to deploy a commercial cubesat they will use the arm to unberth Bishop, deploy the satellite through the docking port, and then re-berth it.

Bishop and BEAM are harbingers of the future on ISS. Axiom will be adding its own private modules in ’24. And then there are the upcoming private tourist flights. Both Axiom (using Dragon) and Russia (using Soyuz) have such flights scheduled before the end of ’21.

Assuming the economy doesn’t crash due to government oppression and mismanagement, gradually over the next decade expect operations on ISS and future stations to shift from the government to commercial private operations, aimed at making profits instead of spending taxpayer money.

Axiom chooses Houston for its astronaut training and space station construction facility

Capitalism in space: Axiom, the company building the next private modules to be added to ISS, has chosen Houston as the location for its astronaut training and space station construction facility.

Axiom Space, based in Houston, plans to develop a 14-acre headquarters campus at the spaceport located at Ellington Airport. It will use this campus to train private astronauts and for production of its Axiom Station. Mayor Sylvester Turner announced the project on Tuesday.

…Terms of the deal, including how the development would be financed, are still being worked out and must be approved by City Council. The Houston Airport System, for instance, could help provide financing that Axiom Space would pay back.

Axiom said construction could begin in 2021, and it expects to have a functional headquarters campus in 2023. The company grew its workforce to 90 people this year and is looking to hire another 100 next year. Ultimately, it could add more than 1,000 jobs for the Houston area.

For Axiom, the most important event in the coming year will be its private manned mission to ISS, using SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. That flight, presently scheduled for the fall, will put it on the map.

Israeli fighter pilot to fly on Axiom’s first private Dragon launch in ’21

Capitalism in space: Axiom has revealed that an Israeli fighter pilot, Eytan Stibbe, will be the second passenger on on its first private Dragon launch to ISS in the fall of 2021.

Stibbe will be the second Israeli to fly in space, following Ilan Ramon, who died when the space shuttle Columbia broke up in 2003 during its return to Earth.

The Axiom AX-1 mission is scheduled to launch in the second half of 2021, which the company unveiled in a deal with SpaceX earlier this year. Astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, who previously worked for NASA and flew to space four times, will be the AX-1 mission commander, with Stibbe set to serve as a mission specialist.

AX-1 would be the first fully private mission to the International Space Station, with Lopez-Alegria and Stibbe flying with two other yet-to-be-named people.

The consistent rumors are that actor Tom Cruise and a movie director will be those other two passengers, but this is not confirmed.

It is important to emphasize that this space mission will be entirely private, with almost no involvement of the U.S. government other than providing coordination, the training of the astronauts, and the use of ISS. The rocket and spacecraft are SpaceX’s, purchased by the customer Axiom. Moreover, Axiom has plans to add its own private modules to ISS where future private space passengers will be housed, which will then reduce the government’s role and contribution even more.

And since this will be a private mission, it means the funds to fly it will come from its passengers, not the government. This also means that as long as there are customers, there will be no slow-down in future flights.

Axiom hires European company to help build private ISS module

Capitalism in space: Axiom has hired the European company Thales Alenia, to build the habitation module of its commercial space station that will initially attach to ISS.

Axiom’s station modules will form a new section of ISS that will be able to operate independently, so that when ISS is decommissioned it can detach and remain operational in space.

That Axiom did not choose either Boeing (which I think built most of NASA’s ISS modules) or Northrop Grumman (which has been pushing an upgraded version of its Cygnus capsule as future station modules) is intriguing. I suspect with Boeing cost was the major reason, as Boeing’s modules are generally far too expensive. There also might be questions about that company’s quality control.

Why Northrop Grumman lost out however is unclear. Its Cygnus design is relatively inexpensive, and has clearly demonstrated that it works very reliably. obvious. Thales Alenia makes that Cygnus module for Northrop Grumman, so why buy it from the U.S. company when you can get it from the builder. (Thanks to reader Doug Booker for pointing out this obvious fact, one I had forgotten.)

Either way, this contract award gets us one step closer to truly private operations in space. Eventually competing private stations such as Axiom’s will replace government stations like ISS. That will in turn certainly lower costs and and increase innovation, which in turn will accelerate the development of the engineering required to build practical interplanetary spaceships.

This of course assumes we remain a free nation. Right now I have strong doubts.

Axiom and SpaceX sign deal for flying commercial tourists to ISS

Capitalism in space: Axiom, the commercial company that already has an agreement with NASA to build its own commercial modules for ISS, has signed an agreement with SpaceX to use its crew Dragon capsule to ferry one professional and three tourists to ISS, as soon as the second half of 2021.

The private crew members will spend at least eight days on the orbiting research platform, allowing them to enjoy “microgravity and views of Earth that can only be fully appreciated in the large, venerable station,” Axiom said in a statement.

Axiom said Thursday it has signed a contract with SpaceX to transport a commander “professionally trained” by Axiom and three private astronauts to the space station on a Crew Dragon spacecraft. The mission could take off as soon as the second half of 2021, Axiom said.

This is SpaceX’s second commercial customer for its Dragon capsule. Two weeks ago it signed a deal with Space Adventures to fly four tourists on a crew Dragon for up to five days.

Why Bigelow passed on NASA bid for new ISS module

Capitalism in space: In an interview this week, Robert Bigelow provided his reasons for not bidding on the NASA agreement to build additional modules for ISS, won by passed on NASA bid for new ISS module, won by Axiom this week.

In a Jan. 28 interview, Robert Bigelow said his company decided not to bid on a NASA competition for access to an ISS docking port for a commercial module because the funding NASA offered for doing so was too low. NASA announced Jan. 27 it selected Axiom Space to use the port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

When NASA issued the request for proposal in June for the docking port, NASA said it projected making $561 million available for both the docking port solicitation and a separate one to support development of a free-flying commercial facility. “That was asking just too much” of the company, Bigelow said. “So we told NASA we had to bow out.”

NASA now appears willing to separate the free flyer from the program, meaning that it wishes to make more money available to both, something Bigelow says is necessary because at the moment he believes there are not enough customers outside NASA for any orbital space business to make a profit.

On this last point I think Bigelow might be wrong. I also think it will be a mistake for NASA to provide these companies too much money. Keep them on a tight lease, force them to work efficiently so that they lower costs. This will make it easier for them to charge less to outside customers, thus widening their customer base more quickly.

If NASA gives them a blank check, it will remain the only customer, as the companies will then end up spending too much building their facilities, making it impossible for any other private customer to afford using it.

NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

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.

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.