Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Why This Former NASA Exec Is Building a Private Space Station

With his new startup Axiom Space, Mike Suffredini has big plans for the future of space travel.

When the International Space Station (ISS) is taken out of commission in 2024, it will end a a 26-year run as a hub of experimentation and exploration in low Earth orbit. One former NASA employee sees that as a big opportunity.

Mike Suffredini, the former manager of the ISS at NASA, has co-founded a startup with the intention of building a brand new, private space station. The company, Axiom Space LLC, will build a module to attach to the current ISS, and will eventually expand that module into a full station that can be used for space tourism and research. 

Suffredini first made the announcement at the NewSpace 2016 conference in Seattle on June 22. He'd been working at a space company that provides engineering and IT service to the federal government, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, or SGT, since leaving NASA in September. SGT's founder, Kam Ghaffarian, will be Suffredini's co-founder at Axiom, and the new company will be a subsidiary of SGT. 

"I told him that, really, the only thing I knew how to do was build and operate a space station, and I'd like to see who does the next commercial one," Suffredini tells Inc. "Shortly after that conversation, he called and said, 'Ok, let's do that.' "

The two decided to build a new company with the goal of building its own multi-use station. Suffredini says that a study by Axiom Space pegged the market for a commercial space station to be $37 billion between 2020 and 2030. That number takes into account commercial and government uses--with the ISS retired, NASA could find use for Axiom's station for research purposes. It will be designed so it can grow as the market grows.

One of Axiom's biggest long-term revenue opportunities is manufacturing. Suffredini says that other exploration companies could use the station as a hub to build space craft at a significantly reduced cost, since they wouldn't have to be sturdy enough to withstand a launch from earth. Manufacturing processes that use both heating and then cooling, which is how most electronics' silicon wafers are made, would be purer if constructed in zero gravity since materials wouldn't settle. And additive manufacturing, or 3-D printing, is easier in zero gravity, since human organs and veins won't collapse on themselves during construction.

The company will also look to get into the space tourism industry to compete with the likes of Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin.

"Our long-term mission," Suffredini says, "is to make living and working in space commonplace for all, and to create a means to deep space exploration."

Once that happens, and Suffredini is certain it will, he envisions eventual revenue opportunities in marketing. Modules could have electronic ads on them--"blimp mode," he calls it--that would be visible from an approaching space craft's camera, and flight suits can have patches with brand names.

The ISS, which first launched in 1998, was originally intended to last only 15 years, so its projected 2024 retirement date is impressive. Still, Suffredini hopes NASA can squeeze a few extra years out of it and make it last to 2028. By that time, Axiom's space station should be ready to inherit all the projects that will be ongoing in the ISS. If there's a gap between when NASA retires the ISS and when his--or any--commercial space station launches, Suffredini fears many of those ventures will end due to the complications of restarting. 

Suffredini is only the latest entrepreneur looking to commercialize space. NewSpace Global estimates that the number of private space commercialization companies grew from 125 in 2011 to 1,000 in 2015. That's in large part due to the decreasing cost of space travel as pioneers like Elon Musk improve reusable rocket technology.

"You cannot overstate the significance of what Elon Musk and SpaceX have done," Suffredini says. "All of this work going on to reduce the cost of access to space has played a big role--now people really think they can get to space." Suffredini says Axiom is in talks to use SpaceX as a launch provider once the time comes to send its technology into orbit. 

Axiom has secured some seed funding, but Suffredini won't reveal how much. The company will start seeking a Series A round from investors in the fall.

In the quickly growing industry, the company will have some competition: Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace first announced its intention to create a space station in 2004, and the project is currently in development. But while that company's founder, Robert Bigelow, is first and foremost a hotel chain owner, Suffredini believes that his experience as the person in charge of the ISS will give him a competitive edge.

"There aren't many people," he says, "who in the last 20 years have built, assembled, and operated a platform like this. I have. I think we'll be in a good position to make a serious go at it."