When Michael Suffredini decided to retire from the Johnson Space Center in 2015, he knew he wasn’t actually done with space. “I was just looking for the right opportunity to use everything I’d learned,” he says.
The Texas native had learned a lot during an engineering career spent entirely at NASA. Among other things, he’d served as the program manager of the International Space Station for a decade, accumulating the kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by, well, building and running the groundbreaking system that is currently our only toehold to living in space, the place where astronauts conduct experiments, test out equipment, and continue to work toward the goal of venturing farther into our solar system.
“By the time I started thinking about retiring from the JSC, I knew that the ISS was not going to last forever, and I knew that in order for the government to do exploration, they were going to have to get out from under the ISS, because it costs NASA between $3 and $4 billion per year,” Suffredini explains. “I wasn’t sure what company was going to decide to build and operate a commercial space station, but I had already decided that I was going to join that company.”
One day he mentioned his plan to Kam Ghaffarian, a longtime government contractor who’d started his own business back in 1994: Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, Inc., which trains all astronauts and everyone who works on ISS operations. Suffredini was shocked when, the very next day, Ghaffarian called him up and suggested that the two build a commercial space station together.
By 2016 they had founded Axiom Space. And if everything goes according to plan, starting in 2021 they are going to be sending what they call “space participants” and professional foreign astronauts to the ISS for 10-day stays, who will orbit the planet alongside NASA astronauts, for $55 million per person. They’re also aiming to attach their own module to a port on the ISS—the start of what will eventually become a freestanding commercial space station—if they win a contract to do so.
Locating company headquarters in Houston, in a nondescript building just a few blocks away from the Johnson Space Center, was a no-brainer for the Axiom founders. “Houston is the home of manned spaceflight, and if we’re here, this is where our spaceflight participants will train, where it will be easy for JSC people to come over and really take a look at the modules we’ll be constructing,” says Suffredini. “It will keep Houston involved as NASA moves toward working with commercial interests in space.”
Private citizens have flown to the ISS before, but only via Russia’s space program, never under NASA’s auspices, since for decades agency officials eschewed any endeavor that could be seen as commercializing space. That began to change under the Obama administration and continued under Trump. In June NASA announced that private companies could start flying non-astronauts to the ISS. The agency also opened the space station to for-profit ventures, even those without educational or research-driven components.
Since 2010, when NASA ended its shuttle program, the JSC has had just the ISS to oversee, and the station is currently funded only through 2024. As such, in the coming years, having businesses like Axiom based here could prove crucial to keeping the city in the space-exploration game. “If you look around these days, the other NASA centers get projects that once almost automatically would have gone to Houston,” says Suffredini. “That’s fine for now, because the ISS is huge, but when they end the ISS program, there won’t be anything lined up to replace it.”
Earlier this year NASA allowed Axiom and other commercial companies to submit their applications for the use of the one berth portal on the ISS that can accommodate a new, large module constructed by a private company. NASA is expected to announce who’s won the rights sometime next month. Axiom’s main competitor is Bigelow, a Las Vegas–based company that already has attached a small test module to the ISS.
While it’s hard to believe now, low-Earth orbit—at an altitude of less than 1,200 miles—is expected to become packed with commercial stations as NASA continues to shift focus to the moon and Mars in the coming years. “Someone needs to be in low-Earth orbit,” says Suffredini, “and we hope that the first company to do that will be us.”
If that happens, the company will expand, growing from 50 employees up to perhaps a thousand once it starts building modules. And Suffredini thinks that could draw other commercial space companies to the area. “We’re going to build an economy in low-Earth orbit, and it will be a Houston-based economy,” he says, brimming with confidence. “Not only will Houston be the home of manned spaceflight, it will be where the future started, the cornerstone of commercial spaceflight. That’s a really big deal.”