What Comes After the International Space Station?

Hoteliers were also paying attention. After floating some ideas for orbital hotels and lunar getaways at space conferences in the late 1960s, designers for Hilton Hotels revived the company’s space station dreams just before the new millennium with plans for a large rotating circular space station built from spent space shuttle boosters. The idea was called Space Islands, but it doesn’t appear to have moved beyond a conceptual stage. A few years later, Robert Bigelow, whose ownership of Budget Suite Hotels turned him into a titan of the hospitality industry, also announced his intention to create a space station in orbit. Bigelow made it as far as launching an inflatable module to the ISS for tests in 2016, but earlier this year his space company, Bigelow Aerospace, laid off all of its employees. (Representatives from Hilton Hotels and Bigelow Aerospace did not respond to WIRED’s requests for comment.)

“Twenty years ago, we didn’t have a lot of experience living and working in microgravity,” says McAlister. “When we were starting to talk about a commercial space station, there wasn’t much economic activity in low earth orbit. No one really knew what kinds of markets were going to exist, much less which ones would be profitable. I think we might have been a little ahead of the game.”

Suffredini is optimistic that Axiom can succeed where others have failed. He says his experience managing the ISS program exposed him to all the areas where it was possible to dramatically reduce the cost of building and operating an orbital outpost. For example, pretty much everything used to build the ISS is a space-qualified component, which means it has to meet a rigorous set of engineering standards and test results to ensure that it will work properly in orbit. But Suffredini says that in a lot of cases—particularly inside the pressurized ISS modules—using space-qualified components is unnecessary, and commercial off-the-shelf parts work fine. “You don’t always have to buy the space-qualified fan,” says Suffredini. “The ISS taught us what we don’t have to do.”

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Axiom also has the advantage of being able to use the ISS as a jumping-off point, a luxury that wasn’t available until NASA decided to give away one of its docking ports a few years ago. This allows the company to slowly build its space station in a piecemeal fashion, rather than all at once. In fact, Axiom won’t launch its own power module into orbit until just before it’s ready to disconnect from the ISS. Until then, it will be relying on the ISS for powering its life support systems, which takes some of the risk out of testing the new module. It also allows the company to start generating revenue by flying astronauts and payloads to its own module before it has a stand-alone station, which can ease the substantial upfront costs of building it.

“It’s capital intensity plus market uncertainty that makes building and operating a station so challenging,” says Carissa Christensen, the CEO of Bryce Space and Technology, a consultancy focused on the space sector. “But with the team it’s built, the expertise it has, and the financial support it appears to have, Axiom is very well positioned.”

Axiom may be the first company to build a private space station that will make it to orbit, but is unlikely to be the last. Jeff Bezos has said he started Blue Origin with the intention of laying the foundation for a space economy that allows millions of people to live and work beyond earth. Earlier this year, the company posted a job opening for an “Orbital Habitat Formulation Lead,” which indicates the company is getting serious about creating a space station in low earth orbit. (Blue Origin representatives did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) And there will still be government-run space stations after the ISS, too. China has launched two small space stations called Tiangong 1 and 2 to test the hardware its national space agency will use to build a larger station later this decade.

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