Michael Suffredini has big business plans for low Earth orbit. After a decade as NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station (ISS) he retired from the agency in September 2015 to pursue opportunities in the private sector, convinced that a golden age of commercial spaceflight was dawning. Partnering with Kam Ghaffarian, CEO of SGT, the company that operates the ISS for NASA and also trains America’s astronauts, Suffredini co-founded Axiom Space in early 2016.

As Axiom’s president, Suffredini’s goal is simple: to build and fly the world’s first private space station, using the ISS as a springboard. The company is in talks with NASA to install a new commercial module on the ISS’s sole available unused docking port as early as 2020 or 2021, and is presently planning the module’s construction and flight with aerospace manufacturers and launch providers. Axiom’s module would be the foundation for a full-blown private space station that would debut after the ISS’s retirement, which is tentatively slated for 2024. Detached before the ISS is deorbited to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere, Axiom’s module would remain in orbit to serve as the private station’s first section.

Axiom, however, is not alone in its bid for private piggybacking on the ISS. Another company, Bigelow Aerospace, is already occupying an ISS port with its bedroom-size Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, a test facility for its own line of proprietary “inflatable” commercial space stations. Bigelow’s next major project—a much larger inflatable module in partnership with United Launch Alliance—could fly as soon as 2020. It may directly compete with Axiom for the ISS’s last free docking port, and mastery of what could be a multibillion-dollar emerging market in low Earth orbit hundreds of kilometers overhead.

Suffredini spoke with Scientific American about Axiom’s plans, the ISS’s legacy and the race to loft a commercial space station.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

People have talked about making private space stations for decades, even before on-orbit construction began on the ISS. Why is now the right time to finally make this a reality?
It is clear to me there is a growing need for a private space station. Our vision is to make living and working in Earth orbit commonplace as a means to sustain deep-space exploration. But in order to build a sustainable exploration capability we have to have a low Earth orbit platform. It’s not reasonable to expect that we can do a sustained exploratory program without the capability of testing systems and studying human adaptation to space in low Earth orbit. So that’s a given, in my mind.

In order to do that though, in order for governments to explore, they can’t really all afford their own infrastructure in low Earth orbit. To me the only reasonable solution is to have a viable commercial platform that governments can use when they need to—not have to own and operate—and to be able to use at the level they need when they need [it]. Not as an anchor tenant where you come in and you’re always paying this bill. But rather where, okay, you have some work or testing that needs done, you go get it done, and you move on to the next thing. We want to make sure everybody who wants to work in space today has a place they can go to, to do whatever it is they’re doing without having to needlessly start over. That saves costs.

Bill Gerstenmaier [NASA’s chief of human spaceflight] has said NASA is going to cede low Earth orbit to commercial industry at some point. The writing is on the wall. So I do think the time is right. We think there are six sectors that make up a plausible revenue stream, and if you look at the business case across all of them you realize, yeah, there’s a market there that can support something like Axiom today, and that market will grow over time. You go off and do your math and see how much it’ll cost to build and operate your station—and if your projections say you’ll make a buck and be a healthy company, that’s what you do. And that’s what our analysis told us.

What are the six sectors?
Let’s start with the ones you probably will recognize first: Scientific research. Manufacturing on orbit. And something I refer to as “exploration system testing.” That’s all the testing they do on ISS today to get ready for deep-space missions. Today it’s technology demonstration, tomorrow it’ll be testing smaller scale versions of systems for deep-space exploration. Then they’ll build final systems designs and test those for long periods. And then there’s also all the research about human responses to spaceflight—I consider that exploration system testing, too. But really it’s to support whatever the exploration crowd needs to make sure their systems will do what they want far from home. Then there’s tourism, which is very easy to understand. There’s also advertising and branding, something not done much on ISS today but that could be done more on a commercial station. It’s not a huge market, but it’s noticeable.

I’m counting only five…
I saved the best for last. The last sector is something I believe Axiom is uniquely able to provide, which is helping more governments get into the business of human spaceflight. There are lots of countries that want to have a meaningful astronaut program, flying their citizens as astronauts rather than as tourists. The associated technology development can help stimulate economy and industry, drive STEM education, boost national pride and a country’s global image. So many countries are interested in getting into that.

Axiom’s mix of very talented folks and our pool of capabilities put us in a unique position to help countries identify what is needed to become spacefaring, and to train their astronauts for two years or even a bit more, then fly them to orbit for extended periods of time—maybe 60 days just starting out when our module is attached to ISS all the way up to 180 days when we separate and form our own station. We’ll give them high-performance jet training, just like NASA’s astronauts. We’ll give them extravehicular activity experience—spacewalks. They’ll go through all these normal processes to be certified as astronauts. And over time we’ll help the countries develop in situ capabilities for all of that so they can do their own training and operations, and maybe even bring their own modules to our space station at some point. Because most of these countries want to participate in the partnership that I believe will happen to explore beyond low Earth orbit. When we go beyond low Earth orbit, we should do it as a planet, not as a single country. So that’s the sixth: this opportunity to train up and fly new astronauts and help more countries build human spaceflight programs.

It sounds like you could get enough business to justify a private space station right now. So why bring modules to the ISS first?
We’re bringing our first modules to the ISS in order to transition the legacy that exists, and to continue it. On ISS, whatever year it’s going to end, about two years before that people will stop making hardware to fly because it just wouldn’t be on orbit long enough to justify investment. You’d end up with a dip [in activity], and nobody wants that. That means the most important part of this idea is to make sure we build and launch our modules and get this transition done before the ISS retires, which could happen as soon as 2024, according to NASA’s plan. So we’re staying pretty busy.

What odds would you place on the 2024 retirement? What do you think is the most likely future of the ISS right now?
Well, I hate to gamble in public on 2024.

The sooner ISS gets out of orbit, the sooner NASA saves three and a half or even four billion dollars per year, depending on when exactly they deorbit. That’s NASA’s yearly operating cost. And then you look at all the other government partners, and between all of them they’re in it probably close to a billion dollars more in terms of yearly costs. That’s money that could instead be spent on exploration work, which makes 2024 seem desirable.

We don’t actually have to decide whether to retire the ISS for another several years. NASA probably doesn’t have to decide until 2020, although the partners would rather decide in 2019 because that’s when their next ministerial council meeting is—those meetings are on a three-year schedule, and 2022 would be pretty late. But there is one unused, available docking port right now on the ISS. So now I’m saying we need a commitment from NASA for that port for somebody, some entity that wants to try to [build private space stations]. The ISS can really only support one more significantly large module, mostly due to power constraints. The sooner NASA makes that decision on giving the port to somebody, then the more informed they’ll be when they have to decide whether to extend the ISS or not. Because then they’ll be able to see how close whomever they select is, in terms of manufacturing and testing and delivering to the launchpad.

So rather than assume an end date, I think the better thing is for us to make those early decisions to make sure a commercial entity can prove itself and help the agencies make an informed decision as soon as possible on actually extending ISS.

There’s got to be competition for that port, then. Are you worried about competitors like Bigelow Aerospace, which is already using the ISS to test technology for their planned private space station?
We’re really focused on us right now—our product, and making it the best it can be to customers and to NASA when we put our proposal in. You’re right, Bigelow has been very overt about their desire to fly, but I don’t know enough about what they’re doing to say how viable they are. What I do know is they are planning on using inflatable technology. Inflatable modules are pretty cool but they have their challenges. How the material itself works is being tested on orbit today, but there’s a very big trick in figuring out how you’re going to outfit inflatables—where all the plumbing and other systems will go, and how you’re going to ensure stale pockets of air don’t form inside, since that’s something that could asphyxiate a crew. There are all kinds of things that need to be done—and I’m sure they will be—but in the near term I think that’s much further away than the time frame we need to fly. At Axiom our concern is about getting to orbit as soon as possible. We really want to fly in early 2020 or 2021.

You mentioned that keeping the ISS up and running costs NASA alone about $3.5 billion each year. That’s a lot of money—probably too much for a commercial enterprise to presently sustain—and it doesn’t account for the developmental costs or the costs shouldered by international partners. So why would a private space station be cheaper?
Well, that’s a good question. I have almost a dissertation on how we’ll operate to reduce costs. Inherently we will procure differently than governments do, and we will also use new technologies and apply lessons we’ve learned from the ISS.

The space industry started about 50 years ago, and at the time they didn’t have all the advanced manufacturing techniques we have now, and they didn’t have as many competing companies or clients. We’ll compete the contract for building our module to get a good price, and the module’s internals will be systems you can largely use on the ground. It will be built using manufacturing techniques common to commercial industry today. ASE standards, which originated in automotive repair, will be a benchmark—SpaceX already uses ASE standards for a lot of things. Using “space grade” parts under those criteria is not necessary when other, cheaper parts can do the same job. Everything will be checked and checked again to make sure we can safely use those relieved standards—but that will largely be possible. So we’re taking maximum advantage of the way the industry has evolved so as to reduce the amount of very specialized requirements and verifications for much of what we’ll have installed in these modules. And if something we have installed there gives you a hard time, you just take it out, plug in a new one, and go on; we’ll be working in a “plug and play” landscape. And all that means we’re driving the cost of each module way down.

Speaking of “lessons learned from the ISS,” that space station, of course, has been controversial. Some advocates of space exploration see it as a detour or a dead weight that has kept us from returning to the moon or going on to Mars. Many scientists believe its relatively meager research returns have not justified its immense multibillion-dollar cost. Couldn’t similar criticisms be raised against commercial space stations like Axiom’s, too?
You know, this is always a hard conversation to have. When we went to the moon, it wasn’t really because we were interested in the rocks that were there. We were trying to prove to the world that we were technologically very capable. It really was about our concerns in the nuclear age and whether we were technically superior to those we considered to be our potential adversaries. And it drove a huge investment in space, which we benefited from. The ISS is no different, although it was built with a vision by some that we would have this station as the first step toward collaborative deep-space exploration. After the collapse of the Soviet Union we wanted to cooperate with the Russians in a big way, and that was a huge forcing function on the entire project. There were all kinds of impacts from that. We had to fly it in a different [orbital] inclination around the Earth to make it easier to reach using Russian rockets, which complicated things, but it was ultimately approved because of the political influence it gained from that international collaboration.

The ISS was a fantastic vehicle for what we wanted it to do—we were trying to get a bunch of nations with a capability on orbit that we shared, but that at the same time could call our own. The biggest influence it has had is what it’s done for us as countries working and playing together in space. Despite all the political turmoil of the past few years, in particular with the relationship between Russia and some Western countries, the ISS has always remained completely unscathed. It is a place where we work together—not as citizens of nations but as human beings—advancing our cause together.

So you end up with this vehicle with all these modules from all these different countries and they have to all integrate and work together, and that made it much bigger and more expensive than what we’d need for a specific research purpose that was out there. If you look at the ISS from the standpoint of the world stage and the advancement of America’s ability to lead in spaceflight, I think it has been huge. If you believe exploration is important to this planet and to our species, it has played an even bigger role. But if you look at it from any single pure and very specific viewpoint—like the desire for a robust research bonanza—well, it’s a different conversation. The ISS has supported a lot of really good research, but if you measured it by the number of Nobel Prize winners that won because of something done onboard, you would be very disappointed. But when you consider it more broadly than just research capability, I think it has been an amazing platform. And extending that—building another platform we expect to be used by the international community—is very important to what we are doing at Axiom.