Godspeed, fellas. Let’s go have some fun.” These were the words of encouragement from mission control at the Kennedy Space Center — only this time for the first private astronaut mission that launched on a mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on April 8, 2022. Four private astronauts, including former NASA astronaut Michael López-Alegría and three paying customers: real-estate entrepreneur Larry Connor, Canadian businessman Mark Pathy, and Israeli investor Eytan Stibbe, made history that day by flying to low-Earth orbit (LEO) on the first wholly private mission to the ISS.

The Axiom mission, called Ax-1, organized by the Houston-based Axiom Space, wasn’t the first time an all-private astronaut crew flew to space. That milestone was set by SpaceX in 2021 when it launched four private astronauts on a three-day orbital flight. It is, however, the first time an all-private astronaut crew visited the ISS.

Space travel, as we know it, is changing. Over the last decade, the NASA-directed space exploration model of the 1960s has pivoted to a new model of commercial space where private companies are emerging and leading space innovation.

NASA is building and executing a targeted strategy for a vibrant LEO economy. With the signing of the NASA Transition and Authorization Act in 2017, the government decided to go beyond asking commercial providers to carry out what would previously have been NASA missions, such as carrying people and payload to the ISS, and to cede the direction of activities in LEO to commercial space providers.

The International Space Station in low-Earth orbit. (Image: NASA)

“If you look at the agency’s most recent strategic plan, we have a goal in there that says NASA will work to lay the foundation for America to maintain a constant human presence in LEO, enabled by a commercial market,” said Misty Snopkowski, NASA’s Program Executive for the Commercial LEO Development program, which works to create a robust commercial LEO economy by enabling the development of commercially owned and operated LEO destinations.

“This whole commercialization of LEO has actually been something that NASA has been working on for over 10 years,” she said. “We have had a lot of success with cargo transportation and now also with the Commercial Crew Program. NASA has been working on that transportation piece, to get that capability in place from a commercial perspective. Now what we are trying to do is take that same model and create these Commercial LEO Destinations,” added Snopkowski.

Early renderings of the crew’s quarters with plush padded chambers and a view of the Earth on Axiom’s commercial space station. (Image: Axiom Space)

“We have entered an interesting time where I think private contributions to the space arena have had quite an explosive and expansive impact,” said Tom McCarthy, Co-Founder and VP of Business Development at Motiv Space Systems (Pasadena, CA). “If it wasn’t for private contributions, we wouldn’t have some of the access to space or the data or processing capabilities. There is huge involvement from the private sector that’s been very beneficial. That coupled with the continued government interest and foundation funding has really allowed the American presence to maintain in space.”

Retiring the ISS

LEO provides an ideal environment for crew training, research, and hardware testing for exploration use. The ISS will be the last government-led destination in LEO. The overarching strategic goal of NASA is to have the commercial LEO destinations (CLDs) ready after the ISS retires in 2030. These CLDs are expected to launch before 2030, allowing NASA to have continued access to train astronauts and conduct science in LEO.

This transition of LEO operations to the private sector will yield efficiencies in the long term, enabling NASA to shift resources toward other objectives. “A part of our overall strategy is, as the station is finishing up the rest of its life, we are also investing in industry to make these new commercial LEO destinations, so that we have that seamless transition between ISS and these new capabilities that will be commercially owned and operated,” said Snopkowski.

Blue Origin’s commercial station will function as an orbital “mixed use business park” designed to open multiple new markets in space. (Image: Blue Origin)

To fulfill this goal, NASA has entered into a contract for commercial modules to be attached to a space station docking port and awarded space act agreements for designing three free-flying commercial space stations. The four commercial LEO destination partner organizations working with the agency are: Axiom Space, Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman.

Through this model, NASA would be a customer of the commercial space industry, allowing it to save on costs and focus on research and exploration. “This is part of NASA’s vision of moving out into deep space,” said Marshall Smith, Senior Vice President of Space Systems at Nanoracks (Houston, TX). “In getting out of LEO, NASA is freeing up more money to allow more deep space activities like going to the Moon and then eventually developing that area, and then of course, going to Mars and other areas,” he said.

There has always been interest, believes Matt Ondler, Chief Technology Officer at Axiom Space, but now it’s possible to build a commercial space station due to several reasons. “One, there are lots of different launch providers and transportation services have matured, but then also just advances in technology in general. We are going to leverage advances in computing power and other technologies to build the commercial systems,” said Ondler, who is a seasoned space leader in both government and industry.

Commercial Space Stations

The Orbital Reef will support innovative microgravity research, development, and manufacturing activities advancing fields as diverse as communications and biotechnology. (Image: Blue Origin)

In December 2021, NASA announced the selection of three private companies that will develop private space stations. Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman will receive over $400 million in federal funds through three separate Space Act Agreements.

Nanoracks, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is developing the space station, called Starlab, expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2027. The basic elements of the Starlab space station include a large inflatable habitat, designed and built by Lockheed Martin, a metallic docking node, a power and propulsion element, a large robotic arm for servicing cargo and payloads, and the George Washington Carver (GWC) Science Park.

The GWC Science Park is a state-of-the-art laboratory system, which will host a comprehensive research, science, and manufacturing capability. Starlab will have the capacity to continuously host up to four astronauts to conduct critical science and research.

“It’s not a giant, monolithic system, and never will be,” said Smith, who has decades of experience in designing and developing complex, in-space systems. “It’s basically close to 40 percent of the pressurized volume of the ISS. And it has all the payload capacity and two thirds of its power for a smaller system. So, it’s a very capable system,” he added.

Northrop Grumman’s space station concept is centered on a modular design that will enable future civil and commercial missions. Building on Northrop Grumman’s commercial spacecraft, the space station borrows trusted technology from the Cygnus cargo resupply vehicle, the satellite servicing Mission Extension and Mission Robotics Vehicles (MEV and MRV), and the in-production Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO). This approach allows the company to minimize initial costs and allow later capabilities to be incorporated based on market needs.

The company’s design provides base modules for commercial capabilities such as science, tourism, and manufacturing. Initially, the station will support crews of four, with future expansion for eight. Multiple docking ports will allow future expansion to support exploration, crew habitats, laboratories, movie production, crew airlocks, and facilities capable of providing artificial gravity.

Blue Origin is building Orbital Reef, its commercial space station, in partnership with Sierra Space and supported by Boeing, Redwire Space, Genesis Engineering Solutions, and Arizona State University. The commercial station will function as an orbital “mixed use business park” designed to open multiple new markets in space. It is expected to offer customers services including transportation, logistics, habitation, and operations.

The Orbital Reef will support innovative microgravity research, development, and manufacturing activities advancing fields as diverse as communications and biotechnology. Its open system architecture will allow any customer or nation to link up and scale to support demand.

Nanoracks, in collaboration with Voyager Space and Lockheed Martin, is developing the space station, called Starlab, expected to achieve initial operational capability by 2027. (Image: Nanoracks)

NASA also awarded a contract to Axiom Space in February 2020, allowing the company access to a port on the ISS in which it intends to add a series of modules for a commercial “Axiom” segment of the outpost. The goal is for the multi-module segment to eventually detach and form a commercial space station at the end of the life of the ISS.

Early renderings of the sleeping quarters for the Axiom Station look like plush padded chambers, complete with a view of Earth and a wide screen TV. It will include expanded crew quarters as well as research and manufacturing capabilities. The station will also incorporate robotics that will carry out routine maintenance, inspections, cleaning, and moving cargo.

According to Ondler, in many ways all these commercial space stations will fundamentally be the same. “You have to provide working volume and have all the systems that keep humans healthy and alive.”

Smith agrees, “We all have a like-minded approach. We want to go do it and there’s enough business out there for a number of providers as we move forward.” According to him, there is going to be plenty of work, not only within NASA, but also outside of NASA in commercial LEO.

The awards are the first part of a two-phase approach to ensure a smooth transition to commercial stations in LEO. The first phase, expected to continue through 2025, will allow the private companies to create a plan and designs that meet both private sector and government needs. During the second phase, NASA wants to certify these stations for NASA astronauts to use and, ultimately, start using them.

Enabling Technologies for a Space Economy

Redwire is developing in-space servicing, assembly, and manufacturing capabilities with Archinaut, a customizable suite of manufacturing and assembly technologies that can be integrated into free-flying satellites. NASA’s OSAM-2 mission will leverage Archinaut to 3D print two beams on-orbit. The first beam will unfurl a solar array, and the second beam will be used to characterize additively manufactured structures in LEO. (Image: Redwire)

Developing a LEO space economy depends on creating demand and broadening commercial use through sustainable, scalable services led by private companies. “One of the things that we have been kind of stressing to industry, especially our partners, is that you are not only building a space station, but you are helping build an economy,” said Snopkowski. “You need to think bigger about how you can get more people into space, so that your business case can close at the end of the day. I do think that if we enable it and nurture it correctly, this is something that can be sustainable in the future.”

There is a whole spectrum of technologies that are being not only developed, but also demonstrated on a regular basis because of the number of rideshares to space. “There is a lot of excitement around space and investments in space technologies. And that has just really blossomed the number of entrepreneurs and innovators in our industry,” said Al Tadros, Chief Technology Officer at Redwire Space (Jacksonville, FL), who has more than 30 years of experience in the space industry.

Tadros expects a tremendous amount of advancement in space-enabled technologies, including materials and processes that are developed and benefit from the microgravity environment of space. “We are working with a number of those, whether it’s biofabrication or materials processing on the space station. We are part of Orbital Reef, which is going to implement a lot of technologies into a next-generation LEO habitat.”

Redwire Space is also building in-space manufacturing technologies and working on a program called On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 2 or OSAM-2 (formerly Archinaut One). “It will literally have a satellite that manufactures itself in space,” added Tadros.

“Technology is cycling so fast,” said Motiv’s McCarthy. “Being able to build and manufacture in space, those emerging technologies are becoming real. And because of that, there is a huge push in this area to really start feeding all those technologies, because they have matured very, very quickly.”

Motiv is working to continually drive down the cost of robotics and space. It is the robotics provider for the OSAM-2 mission. “We have a product called xLink, a modular, scalable, robotic architecture. Its maiden voyage is going to be the OSAM-2, which utilizes this new architecture that we think can also be used for classical NASA-type missions, robotic missions, as well as commercial space station applications.”

The space economy has expanded by over 60 percent in the last decade and is now valued at over $400 billion. Creating a robust LEO economy will be dependent on bringing many new businesses and people into space. It will require the development of not only the supply of services, but also the demand for those capabilities.

Axiom’s CTO Ondler envisions that when their module separates from the ISS, “That will make us switch from launching individual pieces to actually manufacturing modules in space. So, either taking piece parts and building a much bigger system, or even potentially, using additive manufacturing to print very large structures in space.”

For LEO space economy to flourish, we need the ability to not only get to space but also stay in space, as well as leverage the resources there. “I think that 15-20 years from now, we are going to be surrounded by objects that we can’t imagine how we live without that were manufactured in space. And commercial destinations are uniquely positioned to help people manufacture things such as, retinal implants, which are being demonstrated on the ISS right now,” added Ondler.

“Ten years from now, it will look a lot different. That’s going to be the beginning of a different world,” said Smith. “We are going to see a number of providers — at least two — offering services and capability. I think you are going to see businesses start to get involved and engaged in dealing with agriculture, medical, manufacturing. You are going to see innovations that come out in space-based products that will transform areas such as pharmaceuticals and fiber optics,” he added.

There are many international players also who want to play a significant role in building this new space economy, so the landscape will become competitive. And like any economy, the commercial LEO economy will also go through its ups and downs in trying to settle out into what defines it.

This article was written by Chitra Sethi, Director, Editorial and Digital Content Strategy, SAE Media Group. For more information, visit here .