Former NASA ISS manager planning commercial space station venture

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SEATTLE — A former NASA manager of the International Space Station announced June 22 that he is starting a new venture that eventually plans to develop a private space station.

In a presentation at the NewSpace 2016 conference here, Mike Suffredini, president of the commercial space division of Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT) who joined the company shortly after retiring from NASA last September, said he has co-founded a new company that initially will seek to install a commercial module on the ISS.

That module would serve as a precursor for a private facility once the ISS is retired. “We intend to work on a low Earth orbit platform to follow the International Space Station,” he said.

The new company, named Axiom Space LLC, was incorporated in January in Delaware but is based in Houston. Suffredini serves as its president and Kam Ghaffarian, the president and chief executive of SGT, is the chief executive.

Axiom Space is in discussions with NASA on a Space Act Agreement that would allow for studies of adding a commercial module to the ISS. “What we would like to do is fly a module that begins its life at the International Space Station,” Suffredini said in a later interview. “That will help us transition from research and manufacturing and everything else done on ISS on a future platform.”

Suffredini said he wants to fly the module “as early as we can,” which he estimates to be in 2020 or 2021. The company has an unspecified amount of seed funding, and plans to start discussions with investors in the fall. He said he hopes to have a preliminary design review of the module done by December and a contractor selected to build it by January 2017, a schedule he acknowledged was “aggressive.”

He declined to name any company under consideration to build the module, but noted that companies both in the U.S. and other nations would be considered. A key requirement, he said, is the ability to build a module quickly that is as large as possible given the mass and payload fairing size constraints of available launch vehicles.

Suffredini, though, appeared to rule out the use of an expandable module like those under development by Bigelow Aerospace. “In order to make money, we have to get to orbit fast,” he said. “I think it’s going to take a while to build a spacecraft out of inflatable technology.”

Once on the station, Axiom Space would use it for commercial purposes, ranging from research to tourism. Suffredini said that it would also be available for use by NASA when the company is not using it, helping the process of transitioning research done on the ISS to future private stations. Research hardware elsewhere in the station could eventually be moved to this module to allow its continued use after the station’s retirement.

Once the ISS reaches the end of its life, currently planned for no earlier than 2024, Axiom Space would remove the module from the station. It would then become the core of a new commercial space station with the addition of various modules and hardware, including an airlock, docking node, and power and propulsion equipment.

Suffredini believes that there is a robust market for a commercial space station. A study commissioned by Axiom Space concluded the addressable market for such a station could be as large as $37 billion between 2020 and 2030, combining various commercial and government uses.

Axiom Space’s plans, though, could put it into conflict with Bigelow Aerospace. In April, Bigelow announced it had started discussions with NASA about installing one of its B330 expandable modules on the ISS as a precursor to its planned commercial space stations.

Bigelow already has a presence on the ISS with its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), a demonstration of expandable module technology developed under a NASA contract. BEAM arrived at the station on a commercial cargo flight in April and expanded to its full size in May, and will remain there for up to two years.

Suffredini noted that neither his company nor Bigelow have any deals yet with NASA to install modules. It’s also unclear if the station could accommodate both companies’ modules. “Ports are a precious resource,” he said, referring to docking ports on the ISS. “NASA has to figure out how to deal with that.”