Aboard the International Space Station (ISS), humanity has managed to maintain an uninterrupted foothold in low Earth orbit for just shy of 20 years. There are people reading these words who have had the ISS orbiting overhead for their entire lives, the first generation born into a truly spacefaring civilization.
But as the saying goes, what goes up must eventually come down. The ISS is at too low of an altitude to remain in orbit indefinitely, and core modules of the structure are already operating years beyond their original design lifetimes. As difficult a decision as it might be for the countries involved, in the not too distant future the $150 billion orbiting outpost will have to be abandoned.
Naturally there’s some debate as to how far off that day is. NASA officially plans to support the Station until at least 2024, and an extension to 2028 or 2030 is considered very likely. Political tensions have made it difficult to get a similar commitment out of the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, but its expected they’ll continue crewing and maintaining their segment as long as NASA does the same. Afterwards, it’s possible Roscosmos will attempt to salvage some of their modules from the ISS so they can be used on a future station.
This close to retirement, any new ISS modules would need to be designed and launched on an exceptionally short timescale. With NASA’s efforts and budget currently focused on the Moon and beyond, the agency has recently turned to private industry for proposals on how they can get the most out of the time that’s left. Unfortunately several of the companies that were in the running to develop commercial Station modules have since backed out, but there’s at least one partner that still seems intent on following through: Axiom.
With management made up of former astronauts and space professionals, including NASA’s former ISS Manager Michael Suffredini and Administrator Charles Bolden, the company boasts a better than average understanding of what it takes to succeed in low Earth orbit. About a month ago, this operational experience helped secure Axiom’s selection by NASA to develop a new habitable module for the US side of the Station by 2024.
While the agreement technically only covers a single module, Axiom hasn’t been shy about their plans going forward. Once that first module is installed and operational, they plan on getting NASA approval to launch several new modules branching off of it. Ultimately, they hope that their “wing” of the International Space Station can be detached and become its own independent commercial station by the end of the decade.