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Axiom Segment
Artwork shows the Axiom Segment connected to the International Space Station. (Axiom Space Illustration)

Houston-based Axiom Space has won NASA’s nod to attach a commercial habitation module to the International Space Station by as early as 2024.

The “Axiom Segment” of the space station is designed to connect to the station’s Harmony node and provide a crew habitat, a research and manufacturing facility and a large-windowed Earth observatory. When the International Space Station reaches retirement, Axiom plans to add a power platform and turn its hardware into a free-flying commercial space station.

Axiom’s team also include Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines and Maxar Technologies.

NASA  said it will now begin negotiations with Axiom on the terms and price of a firm-fixed-price contract with a five-year base performance period and a two-year extension option.

Axiom’s founders are space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian and Michael Suffredini, who served as NASA’s space station program manager from 2005 to 2015. Ghaffarian is also the founder of Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which provided engineering and training services for NASA and was acquired by KBR for $355 million in 2018. KBR has joined the Axiom team as a subcontractor.

“We appreciate the bold decision on the part of NASA to open up a commercial future in low Earth orbit,” Suffredini, who serves as Axiom Space’s CEO and president, said today in a news release. “This selection is a recognition of the uniquely qualified nature of the Axiom team and our commercial plan to create and  support a thriving, sustainable and American-led LEO ecosystem.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Axiom’s commercial platform represents “a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research and technology demonstrations in low Earth orbit.”

The space agency said it selected Axiom from proposals that were submitted in response to a solicitation under the umbrella of NextSTEP-2’s Appendix I, which offers private industry the use of the International Space Station’s utilities and a port for attaching commercial facilities.

There’ll be a separate opportunity for commercial partners to propose deals aimed at developing free-flying space destinations in low Earth orbit. Boeing and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture were among the companies laying out concepts for such outposts last year.

NASA doesn’t envision being the only customer for services on commercial space stations, and neither does Axiom.

Axiom’s platform could also be used for zero-G additive manufacturing, fiber optic fabrication, protein crystal production for pharmaceutical applications, or other industrial applications of the sorts that space entrepreneurs have talked about for years. And then there’s space tourism: In 2018, Axiom Space laid out a plan to offer 10-day stays on its space station facilities for a price of $55 million.

“A commercial platform in Earth orbit is an opportunity to mark a shift in our society similar to that which astronauts undergo when they see the planet from above,” said Ghaffarian, who is Axiom’s executive chairman.

Axiom’s plan calls for sending crewed missions to the International Space Station, and later to the free-flying orbital complex, at a rate of two or three flights per year. Shortly before the ISS is retired, perhaps in the 2030 time frame, Axiom would launch a platform to give the free-flier its own power and cooling capability.

Axiom says it’s agnostic on its choice of launch vehicles, but considering its array of partners, crewed transportation services could conceivably be provided by Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxis, which could be sent to orbit atop United Launch Alliance’s rockets. Maxar Technologies has already been signed up to provide power and propulsion capability for NASA’s moon-orbiting Gateway outpost, and there’s a chance it could provide Axiom’s power platform as well.

Axiom isn’t the only company aiming to create a commercial space outpost: Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace has its own grand plan for a habitation facility that could be attached to the International Space Station or operate as a standalone station.

Texas-based Nanoracks, meanwhile, is working on a commercial air lock for the ISS as well as a concept for free-flying orbital outposts. Nanoracks’ partners in the outpost effort include Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch.

Today Nanoracks CEO Jeffrey Manber offered his congratulations to Axiom — and said he was looking forward to future business opportunities. “Eager to see NASA offering on free-flyer, which is overdue,” Manber tweeted.

Update for 10:40 a.m. PT Jan. 28: We’ve corrected a reference to the corporate relationships involving Axiom, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies and KBR.

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