They say you only need to know three things about real estate: location, location, location. And if your location happens to be in Hong Kong, San Francisco, or New York, then you’re probably paying premium dollars to live there. All three are among the most expensive places on Earth, with monthly rent on a two-bedroom apartment exceeding $3,000 a month. So you can imagine what it might cost to live off-world – even with free parking. One statistic that’s been floating around claims the International Space Station (ISS) has cost $150 billion, which comes out to about $7.5 million in rent control for each person-day spent orbiting the planet. The sun will set on the ISS as soon as 2024, and NASA is looking to the private sector to help build a new generation of commercial space stations.
Business Case for Commercial Space Stations
Just about any conversation concerning the commercial space industry – dubbed NewSpace, to denote the emerging paradigm of shifting space exploration to the private sector – begins with SpaceX.
His Royal Emperor Paul Atreides Elon Musk and his $36 billion space startup have redefined how you do business among the stars. For example, back in the Space Shuttle days, it cost nearly $55,000 to launch one kilogram of payload. SpaceX is reportedly doing it for less than $3,000 per kilogram. The thinking is that the private sector can bring the same sort of cost efficiencies to developing and building the different space stations and space habitats needed for human exploration on the moon and beyond.
The ultimate fate of the ISS is still up for debate – perhaps Virgin Galactic (SPCE) will invest in the ISS for its space tourism business – but we do know what’s coming next. NASA is planning a return trip to the moon as part of the Artemis program. The estimated $20 to $30 billion program involves new launch systems, human lunar landing systems, as well as an orbiting space station dubbed Gateway. The U.S. space agency is doling out all sorts of contracts like candy on Halloween for these projects. There are all the usual suspects, like startups SpaceX and even Blue Origin, along with aerospace and defense giants such as Lockheed Martin (LMT) and Northrop Grumman (NOC), which is developing the Habitation and Logistics Outpost (HALO) that will serve as the initial crew cabin for astronauts visiting the Gateway.
But there’s still plenty of commercial space station work available on the Artemis program and other projects for private aerospace companies and startups with less marquee names. In the rest of the article, we’ll (re-) introduce you to seven companies culled from the space habitats databases created by SpaceFund, a venture capital and research firm for the NewSpace industry. There are more than 35 companies on two lists, broken into orbiting and surface habitats, which SpaceFund ranks based on a 0-9 Reality Rating. The higher the number, the more viable the company’s chances of success. We limited ourselves to private companies with a rating of at least 5 that are not run by Elon Musk.
Successor to the ISS
Axiom Space is one of the higher-ranked (7) startups on the SpaceFund list and a company we covered a few years ago in our article “6 NewSpace Startups Enabling Future Research.” Since then, the Houston-based startup has raised a total of $20 million, including a $7 million Series A in December 2019. More importantly, Axiom scored a major contract (financial details pending) with NASA at the beginning of this year to develop a new addition to the ISS, the Axiom Segment. The platform includes a node module, research and manufacturing facility, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory. The plan is for the Axiom Segment to detach and continue as a free-flying, internationally available commercial space station after the ISS is finally decommissioned. The company claims the new space habitat will be built at a fraction of the cost of the ISS, and it should look something like this:
It seems a bit amazing that a five-year-old startup could be tasked with building the successor to the ISS, including launching the first module by 2024. We assume the confidence demonstrated by NASA has to do with the two men leading Axiom. Co-founder and President/CEO Michael Suffredini served as the ISS program manager for a decade, and co-founder and executive chairman Kam Ghaffarian ran an engineering services firm, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which trains NASA’s astronauts and operates the ISS. Experience counts when it comes to working in outer space.
Joint Venture for Commercial Space Stations
That’s probably why Thales Alenia Space has been tapped to provide commercial space station components for both the Axiom Segment and the Artemis program. A joint venture between two European aerospace and defense companies, Thales Group (HO) and Leonardo (LDO), Thales Alenia Space made about 40% of the current ISS, including the Cupola observation module. The French-Italian space company posted revenues of about $2.5 billion in 2019 and has around 7,700 employees in nine countries, so it’s hardly a startup in the classic sense. For the Axiom space station, Thales Alenia Space will provide two key pressurized elements, Node 1 and Habitat:
Additionally, the company is under contract with Northrop Grumman for building cargo compartments for the Gateway space station. Thales Alenia Space has a third agreement to develop components for the Human Landing System (HLS), a project led by Dynetics, which has nothing to do with a certain Tom Cruise cult. Dynetics is a subsidiary of Leidos (LDOS), a scientific and engineering company that runs contracts for NASA, as well as the National Science Foundation in Antarctica.
Inflatable Space Habitats
Another member of the Dynetics
cult team is ILC Dover, a private Delaware company that has been around since 1947. The company has a “soft” touch across a diverse business portfolio, ranging from pharmaceutical containment to bulk packaging to airships and outer space – pretty much anything that involves filling stuff with air. Its claim to fame with NASA is being the primary supplier of spacesuits. Its role in the Dynetics-led team of 25 subcontractors and partners on the HLS project is unclear, but probably has something to do with ILC Dover’s inflatable space habitats.
Part of the HLS platform requires short-term accommodations on the lunar surface, and ILC Dover has designed a variety of inflatable habitats, air-locks, and shelters for lunar and planetary exploration. The company has even tested some of its designs in Antarctica.
We previously profiled Bigelow Aerospace and its inflatable space habitats in our article on startups supporting space research. But 2020 has been a rough year for the company. It lost out to Axiom Space in January to deploy its B330 free-flying space station as the successor to the ISS. In March, it laid off its entire workforce as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all non-essential businesses. It remains to be seen whether Bigelow will bounce back. The company’s website is still active, and even showcases an inflatable lunar habitat with warehouse space:
The base can accommodate up to six people on the lunar surface, and even includes a two-rover garage space.
A Trash Compactor in Space
Sierra Nevada Corporation is another venerable private aerospace company that is collaborating on the HLS project with Dynetics, as well as other components of the Artemis program such as the Gateway space station. In fact, the Nevada-based company is developing its own habitat prototype, along with a trash compactor for the
fully operational battle station commercial space station. If the company’s name sounds familiar, it’s also under contract to build a space plane to carry cargo to the ISS.
Space Outpost Made of Space Junk
To continue the theme: Houston-based Nanoracks is proving the maxim that one man’s trash is another man’s space station. Founded in 2009, Nanoracks created its own holding company, XO Markets, which includes a couple of other space-focused organizations. Total funding (and the organizational structure) is somewhat unclear, but XO Markets has raised $23 million, according to Crunchbase. Nanoracks has leveraged its access to the ISS to serve as the middleman for getting experiments done on the space station, along with product branding.
The startup is now getting serious about helping clean up space debris by repurposing upper stages in-orbit and other structures into what it calls Outposts. Nanoracks proposes turning this space junk into labs, factories, fuel depots, and other support systems. In June 2021, Nanoracks plans to launch a demonstration mission where it will use a robotic cutter on a payload platform to prove its technology can cut the mustard without producing any metal debris, which would kind of defeat the purpose of the whole thing.
In the more immediate future, the company’s Bishop Airlock, above, is scheduled to launch to the ISS before the end of the year. Nanoracks claims it will be the first permanent, commercial addition to the ISS infrastructure. The Bishop Airlock reportedly offers five times the current volume that can be moved in and out of the space station today.
3D Printed Martian Habitats
The Axiom Segment, Gateway, Outposts – all are just stepping stones to get humans to Mars. Once the first space pioneers reach the Red Planet, they’ll want a place to kick back and find shelter from the frigid temperatures and toxic atmosphere. One plan calls for robots to build Martian habitats before humans step foot on the planet. And the award-winning concept from New York-based AI Space Factory proposes 3D-printing such a building from the natural materials found on Mars. Founded in 2016, AI Space Factory is a multi-planetary (well, two planets) architectural and technology design agency that took first place out of 60 teams competing in NASA’s 3D-Printed Mars Habitat Challenge last year. While it might look like a giant ribbed condom, the design made from a biopolymer basalt composite (a material developed from crops like corn and sugarcane) is reputedly light and strong. It’s called MARSHA:
In the meantime, AI Space Factory is applying its robotic 3D printing construction technology here on Earth. The startup is marketing the Earth version, dubbed TERA, as completely sustainable and that it can be fully recycled and reprinted several times.
The exploration and colonization of outer space will require relatively cheap but safe commercial space stations that can be deployed in space and on planetary surfaces. While NASA, the European Space Agency, and other national space programs are currently the main customers for these space habitats and outposts, we can see a time in the not-too-distant future when (very rich) space tourists can really get away from it all.