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 exploration companies grew from 125 in 2011 to 900 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."

RELATED: 6 biggest travel myths and legends

6 biggest travel myths and legends
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6 biggest travel myths and legends

House of Juliet/Casa di Guilietta, Verona, Italy

There is, perhaps, no place more romantic than the city of the most famous lovers in history --- Romeo and Juliet.  The balcony of Juliet’s house became a tourist attraction, especially for lovers.  The balcony overlooks a small courtyard which is often full of young lovers, kissing under the balcony and taking photos of Juliet’s statue.  The walls are adorned with graffiti and love messages.  Tradition says that everyone who visits the house should leave something for Juliet, so the house is packed with love notes, small jewelry and more.  The legend is that by writing on the walls known as “Juliet’s walls,” the visitor will have everlasting love.  Whether traveling with a new travel companion or visiting with a TripTogether local member, the House of Juliet should certainly be a local worth exploring. 

Myth of the Loch Ness Monster, Loch Ness, Scotland

The folklore of the Loch Ness Monster began in 1933 and has been a travel myth ever since. Locals have said that visitors to Scotland visit the sight to search for this legendary creature.  While some locals have noticed visions in the waters, it’s the thrill of the search that adds to the fun and excitement.

Palace of the Three Sisters/Tre Sorelle Palace, Kotor, Montenegro

A 15th century gothic house with three bricked over windows sits in the city of Kotor, Montenegro.  Legend has it that three beautiful sisters would look at the sea and pray for the safe return of their beloved, as all were in love with the same one man.  The young man, a captain named Janko, couldn’t decide which sister to marry, so he embarked on a long sail to clear his mind and make his choice.  He told the sisters that the one who waited for him the longest would become his bride.

The sisters waited patiently at their own window.  Years went by.  The sisters were getting older.  When the first sister passed away, the other two decided to brick over her window so that Janko knows that one is not waiting any longer.  The second sister dies and the youngest bricks over her window.  When the youngest passed away, there was no one to brick over her window, so it remained open.  Janko never returned and was lost forever.

TripTogether.com members have specifically enjoyed visiting this part of the Kotar Bay to enjoy the beautiful scenery and make a wish for love.  

Healing in Sedona, Arizona

Native Americans have considered the arid deserts of Sedona, Arizona sacred spots for healing and worship.  This believe stems from the original Pilgrims who searched for spiritual and physical healing.  They journeyed to the Southwest to consult with shamans on a variety of matters --- mostly to find answers in the energies of the desert.  Today, TripTogether members visit Sedona to take part in retreats to learn New Age ways to harness the powers into daily health and well-being.  The scenery is simply spectacular.

Ancient Ruins of Machu Picchu, Peru

A sacred sight built by the Incas in 1490, Machu Picchu offers more than 200 buildings, temples, houses, pathways, fountains and altars all cut from grey granite from the mountain top. Myth has it that the sight could have been built for astronomical observations having to do with the two equinoxes and other celestial events --- the stone being a gateway to a spiritual world.  Whether hiking the pyramids of Machu Picchu or taking photographs, TripTogether.com members know that this is a travelers dream location.


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