What Comes After the International Space Station?

From the outside, the design of Axiom’s space station looks remarkably similar to the ISS. The cylindrical modules are about 15 meters in diameter and are connected to the station like giant Tinker Toys. The reason for this, says Suffredini, is to take advantage of the space industry’s familiarity with the ISS. One of Axiom’s main contractors to build its modules, the European aerospace company Thales Alenia Space, also built nearly half of the modules for the ISS. Axiom’s station is also constrained by the size of existing launch vehicles. As bigger rockets come along, such as SpaceX’s Starship, it could make larger space stations possible. For example, Suffredini says Axiom is exploring the idea of using inflatable modules in the future. These would be similar to NASA’s TransHab, an inflatable ISS module concept the agency developed in the 1990s before the project was canceled by Congress. Axiom’s modules may be spherical or toroidal, and the diameter of each one could be up to three times larger than a conventional hard-shell model.

Suffredini expects Axiom’s station to be used by a variety of customers; like the ISS, it will serve as a research platform for government space agencies and commercial companies. It will also be a destination for the first wave of space tourists, which is why Axiom made the interior far more luxe than the austere accommodations of the ISS. The crew module’s decor was dreamed up by the famed interior designer Phillipe Starck and will come with plush padded walls, panoramic windows, and color-changing LEDs. But Axiom isn’t waiting for an arrival in orbit to stand up its space tourism business. Shortly after securing its docking port from NASA, the company inked a deal with SpaceX to send four private astronauts—one of whom turned out to be Tom Cruise, who will be shooting a movie on the station—to the ISS by the end of next year.

It’s an ambitious program for such a small company. Axiom has fewer than 100 employees, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in experience. Prior to cofounding Axiom, Suffredini spent a decade working at NASA as the program manager for the ISS, and he says this experience will help Axiom succeed where others have failed. And there have been a lot of plans for private space stations that never came to fruition.

The idea for commercial space stations is almost as old as the Space Age itself. Years before Buzz and Neil took their giant leap, hoteliers and defense contractors were making plans for orbital Hiltons and 100-person space stations. In the 1960s, a bustling ecosystem of humans living and working in orbit seemed just a few decades away. But building large space stations turned out to be harder and more expensive than anyone imagined.

Before the ISS was even a twinkle in NASA’s eye, the agency made its first foray into extraterrestrial hospitality with SkyLab, which could host up to three astronauts for weeks at a time. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, Russia built a series of small space stations—first Salyut and then Mir. It was a start, but it wasn’t exactly Space Station V, the giant wheel in orbit portrayed in Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

NASA’s Skylab hosted only three astronaut crews before the agency allowed it to burn up in the atmosphere in the summer of 1979. Everything in orbit eventually falls back to earth, and Skylab didn’t have a way to maintain its altitude without the space shuttle, which didn’t take its maiden flight until 1981. But NASA hadn’t given up on the idea of a space station. The next year the agency stood up a Space Station Task Force to start design work on its next-generation orbital outpost, Freedom. This station was intended to host up to eight astronauts at a time and would have been built with contributions from Canada, Japan, and several European countries. The station looked remarkably similar to what would become the ISS; in fact, NASA says that around 75 percent of the hardware designs for the International Space Station were originally for Freedom.