Axiom Space has big plans for low Earth orbit (LEO). The Houston-based company was the first to bring private citizens to the International Space Station (ISS) with the Ax-1 mission in 2021. The mission included a series of scientific experiments to be conducted by its crews, and Axiom Space is using some of these investigations for the design of its own space station.
In January 2020, Axiom won the NASA contract to build the first module produced for the ISS. “Our first module will be in 2026” said David Zuniga, Senior Director of Axiom Space.
The first component of the private station will connect to the front port of the Harmony module of the ISS. This docking will serve as a launching pad for the remaining pieces of the space station architecture. Axiom Space plans to add a second module in 2027 and a third module one year later. When the thermal power module is added before 2030, Axiom Space’s space station will be autonomous. At that point, it will detach from the ISS and become a commercially operated free-flying destination in low Earth orbit.
At the same time, the company is taking advantage of the data collected during crewed missions to the ISS. These data are essential for guiding the development of the shapes and functions of the modules of the space station that the company is building. “Each of these missions is a learning opportunity for us. We learn how to become a better human spaceflight company” said Tejpaul Bhatia, CRO of Axiom Space.
These early missions are also laying the groundwork for Axiom’s future training programs. “We are using these initial missions as a way to understand how to train astronauts, but also how to train the crew and truly have the operational skills we need as a company” Zuniga reiterated.
One investigation in the Ax-2 mission was to investigate essential measures from the Translational Research Institute for Space Health (TRISH). The project involved a list of tests for the crew members to perform on themselves once in orbit. Physical assessments, biological sampling, and wearable devices were used to assess the crew’s reaction and adaptation to microgravity.
Most of Axiom Space’s crew members lack the many years of training, except for former NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Michael López-Alegría. The TRISH investigation is how Axiom is learning to acclimate crews to microgravity and creating strategies to mitigate the time needed to adapt.
Axiom Space wants its space station to provide maximum value to its passengers. One of the main goals of these initial crewed missions to the ISS is to determine where that value will be. “It’s more about making sure we understand the needs of our future crews. That way, we will customize our space station” Zuniga said.
NASA as a training ground
Axiom is also taking direct notes from NASA on how to build space stations. “Our team is experienced in human spaceflight” Zuniga said. “We’ve just been able to extract the talent we needed from people who have built and designed space stations”.
“We are working with NASA to make sure all the requirements that the ISS has today, so that we can build our models for the future based on those requirements” Zuniga stated. “All of this is also giving us visibility to ensure that we design our space station to be compatible with current standards, but also have a vision of the future and how we want to use space stations for people who want to fly privately”.
Axiom Space is not the only company interested in the LEO economy. Two years after NASA selected Axiom Space to dock its space station module to the ISS, the space agency awarded development contracts to three other companies: Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman.