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An artist’s conception shows the potential configuration for a commercial space station. (Credit: Axiom Space via YouTube)

Former space station manager Mike Suffredini says he’s working on a plan to send up a commercial space module that could be attached to the International Space Station – and then disattached to become the foundation for a private-sector outpost in orbit.

“We intend to work on a low-Earth-orbit platform to follow the International Space Station,” Suffredini said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle.

Representatives of the new venture, called Axiom Space, are in contact with NASA about the idea, but Suffredini stressed that he’s staying at arm’s length to comply with the space agency’s conflict-of-interest requirements.

Mike Suffredini
Mike Suffredini was NASA’s space station program manager from 2005 to 2015. (Credit: Robert Markowitz / NASA)

Suffredini left NASA last September and is now Axiom’s president as well as the president of Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies‘ commercial space division. Axiom is currently structured as an SGT subsidiary, with SGT co-founder Kam Ghaffarian serving as Axiom’s CEO, Suffredini said.

Axiom already has seed funding, Suffredini said. If NASA gives the go-ahead, the venture would raise additional money from investors to finance the construction of the module and get it launched to the station in the 2020-2021 time frame.

The venture is on a tight schedule because NASA and its international partners are currently planning to operate the ISS only through 2024, Suffredini told reporters. “It’s going to be really hard to make a buck if it ends in ’24,” he said.

Axiom Space joins at least a couple of other companies that are looking into creating commercial orbital outposts. The others include Bigelow Aerospace, which built the expandable BEAM module that was recently attached to the ISS; and NanoRacks, which recently reached agreement with NASA on a plan to look into repurposing commercial cargo vehicles and building a commercial air lock for the ISS.

NanoRacks is already managing the logistics for some of the shipments to the ISS, particularly for racks of experiments. NanoRacks’ managing director, Jeffrey Manber, said he was surprised when he heard about Suffredini’s plans.

“He became a strong ally of commercialization, and I thought this was pretty good, until one day he says, ‘You know, I’m going out in the world, and I may just compete against you.’ So be very careful what you preach to the government officials,” Manber joked.

Neither NanoRacks nor Axiom Space anticipate having NASA pay for the development of the commercial facilities, but NASA could conceivably purchase services from the companies, before or after the ISS closes up shop.

Axiom Space still has to nail down many of the details of its plan, Suffredini said: The companies that would build the initial commercial module and launch it have not yet been identified, but he hopes to refine the plan enough for a preliminary design review in December.

The motivation for creating a private-sector platform in low Earth orbit has to do with the potential payoff. Suffredini said Axiom’s market study suggests there could be tens of billions of dollars’ worth of business opportunities – in the form of space research, space tourism, media and advertising, Earth observation and other orbital endeavors.

Both Suffredini and Manber envision sending up space station components that could be attached to the ISS and used for NASA research or commercial activities as long as the station is operational. At the proper time, the commercial ventures would pull the components off the station and use them for separate orbital platforms.

Suffredini said he hasn’t yet discussed Axiom Space’s plans with Bigelow Aerospace’s billionaire founder, Robert Bigelow. But he said there was almost certainly enough room in Earth orbit for multiple space stations. The scarcest resource may well turn out to be the ports on the ISS that are available for attaching commercial modules during the transition.

“Ports are a precious resource … and NASA has to figure out how to deal with that,” Suffredini said. “They could decide how to deal with it and tell us both to go to hell.”

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