Axiom Segment on ISS
Axiom Space ultimately plans to develop its own segment of the International Space Station with modules for research, habitation and other activities. Credit: Axiom Space

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected a startup led by a former International Space Station program manager to develop a commercial module for the station.

NASA announced Jan. 27 that Houston-based Axiom Space will win access to a docking port on the station, to which the company will install a commercial module for research and other applications. The agency said that it will begin negotiations on a formal contract with Axiom, with a five-year base period and a two-year option.

Axiom was founded in 2016 by Kam Ghaffarian, who previously led space industry engineering services company Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, and Michael Suffredini, who was program manager for the ISS at NASA for a decade prior to his retirement from the agency in 2015. The company has several former astronauts in leadership positions, including former NASA administrator Charles Bolden, listed as a “business development consultant” on the company’s website.

Axiom says it believes that experience, as well as an industry team that includes Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines and Maxar Technologies, played a key role in its selection. “There is a fantastically steep learning curve to human spaceflight,” Suffredini, president and chief executive of Axiom, said in a company statement. “The collective experience at Axiom is quite far along it. Because we know firsthand what works and what doesn’t in LEO, we are innovating in terms of design, engineering and process while maintaining safety and dramatically lowering costs.”

The company has revealed few technical details about its proposed addition to the ISS, other than that the “Axiom Segment” will ultimately include a node module, research and manufacturing facility, crew habitat and “large-windowed” module for viewing the Earth. Axiom expects the first module to be launched in the second half of 2024.

NASA did not disclose in its statement why it selected Axiom for the module. The agency’s statement did feature laudatory comments from Texas’ two senators, John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, as well as Rep. Brian Babin, whose district includes Axiom’s headquarters near the Johnson Space Center.

“This partnership between NASA and Axiom Space — a Houston, Texas original — illustrates how critically important the International Space Station is, and will continue to be, for developing new technologies for low Earth orbit and beyond, and for continuing America’s leadership in space,” Cruz said in the statement.

NASA had been studying making the docking port, on the station’s Node 2 or Harmony module, available to a commercial module for several years, issuing a request for information from industry on the topic in 2016. The effort got new life last June when the agency rolled out its low Earth orbit commercialization initiative, which offered the docking port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

“Axiom’s work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low Earth orbit,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an agency statement.

That statement added that a separate effort under NextSTEP to support development of a free-flying commercial space station will go forward. NASA issued a draft solicitation for that in October, but did not set a date for when the final solicitation will be released.

That’s welcome news for another company developing commercial space stations. “Congrats to @Axiom_Space on attached to space station commercial module selection!” tweeted Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks, after the NASA announcement. “Eager to see NASA offering on free flyer which is overdue.”

Another company long thought to be interested in adding a commercial module to the ISS is Bigelow Aerospace, who already has a small experimental module, called BEAM, attached to the station. A company official didn’t respond to a request for comment on Bigelow’s plans in the wake of the NASA award to Axiom.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...