Commercial space stations go international

by blissketoacv

One of the most enduring achievements of spaceflight has been the partnership for the International Space Station. For more than three decades, the United States has worked with Canada, Europe, Japan and Russia to build and operate the station, overcoming technical and policy challenges to create a space station that has been permanently occupied for over 20 years.

That partnership, though, will end around 2030, when the ISS is decommissioned and deorbited over the South Pacific. The Western ISS partners will continue working together on elements of Artemis, like the lunar Gateway, but without a formal agreement about cooperation in low Earth orbit. (Russian officials say they will develop their own space station, although the country’s space program is showing signs of decay.)

As NASA supports the development of commercial space stations that will replace the ISS, American companies and international partners alike are trying to figure out how to work together under a new paradigm. Barter agreements among agencies will give way to agreements, contracts and joint ventures involving countries and companies. The companies developing those stations are taking different approaches to attracting ISS partners and other nations to their facilities.

STARLAB RECREATES THE ISS PARTNERSHIP

Among the companies working on commercial space stations, Starlab Space has taken the biggest steps toward bringing in other countries. The company is itself a joint venture involving companies representing all Western ISS partners.

Starlab Space started last August when Voyager Space, the American company that won one of the NASA awards to support commercial space station development, joined forces with Airbus Defence and Space. The companies had already been working together on a revised concept for the Starlab space station that would use a large rigid module developed by Airbus, replacing an inflatable module from Lockheed Martin originally proposed for the station.

The companies saw the joint venture as more than a combination of technical expertise. For Voyager, bringing in Airbus was also a way to tap into European government and commercial markets. “We have great relationships with ESA, but clearly Airbus has much better relationships,” Matt Kuta, president of Voyager Space, said at the time. “It allows us to figure out how we can satisfy those customer demands more directly and successfully.”

This spring, two more companies joined Starlab Space. In April, Mitsubishi Corporation said it would take an equity stake in the joint venture, using Starlab for terrestrial product development and supporting other Japanese companies interested in accessing the station. In May, Canada’s MDA Space signed on, taking an equity stake while providing a robotic arm system based on the technologies it developed for the space shuttle and ISS.

“In the commercial space market, a number of these missions require strong teams,” said Mike Greenley, chief executive of MDA Space, in an interview, explaining why his company chose to become a partner on Starlab rather than just a vendor. “We can also bring our business skills and our general space mission experience to these strong corporate teams.”

In an interview after the MDA Space agreement, Kuta said bringing companies from Canada, Europe and Japan into the Starlab Space joint venture was a deliberate effort to create partnerships like those on the ISS today. “We’ve been very focused from the beginning of the strategy to recreate the ISS, but instead of it being owned by the government, it’s owned by the leading aerospace and defense corporations within those regions,” he said. “They understand the business of building a space station technically, understand how to manage the customer relationships and understand how to access government funding.”

That last point is important since other space agencies have expressed a reluctance to directly pay American companies for the use of commercial space stations, a departure from ISS barter arrangements that allow the agencies to spend money domestically.

“It’s very difficult for Europe or Japan to send hundreds of millions of euros or tens of billions of yen to an American company every year for 30 years and employ a bunch of Americans in Houston,” Kuta said.

There are also geopolitical factors to consider, as he cited China’s Tiangong space station. “They are working to capture market share. They’re working with the in-between countries to try to attract them to their sphere of influence as an extension of their Belt and Road Initiative,” he said. “Working together with these international companies as co-owners is a demonstration of sovereignty for the Western world, if you will.”

“Starlab is kind of fun because, in a sense, we’re putting the band back together,” said MDA Space’s Greenley. “We’re successfully creating a corporate joint venture here that puts the ISS nations back together and going off on a new commercial space station adventure.”

AXIOM PARTNERSHIPS

Axiom Space is already in the commercial space station business: it has flown three private astronaut missions to the ISS with a fourth scheduled for late this year, as it works on a series of modules it will install on the ISS that will be the precursor for a standalone commercial station after the ISS is retired.

The company has worked with companies and agencies among the ISS partnership and beyond. Thales Alenia Space is building the structures for Axiom’s space station modules in Italy, to be shipped later to Axiom’s Houston headquarters for outfitting. The company’s private astronaut missions have flown people from several countries, including one ESA reserve astronaut, Marcus Wandt, whose seat on the Ax-3 mission early this year was funded by Sweden.

Axiom has signed agreements with some ESA member states, such as Hungary and the United Kingdom, for future missions. It also has a separate agreement with ESA itself, announced in October 2023, to study ESA cooperation on Axiom’s station.

Boryung Corporation, a South Korean healthcare company, was a lead investor in Axiom’s $350 million Series C round in August 2023 and formed a joint venture with Axiom in January called BRAX Space Corporation to examine collaboration with South Korean companies on Axiom’s station.

“We have established a foothold to promote projects exclusively in South Korea with Axiom Space, which has the strongest competitiveness in the private sector in terms of LEO,” Jay Kim, chairman and chief executive of Boryung, said in a statement about the joint venture. “Beyond our financial investment in Axiom Space, we will continue to develop our relationship as close strategic partners.”

Axiom’s efforts to work with other governments on its space station include not just national agencies but those at a state and regional level. On June 26, Axiom announced it signed a letter of intent with Germany’s Bavarian State Chancellery to study collaboration that may include flying an astronaut or establishing a microgravity laboratory. The company added it was considering establishing its “European hub” in Bavaria.

VAST RACES TO CATCH UP

Vast Space got a late start in its efforts to develop a commercial space station: the company was not formed until after NASA made its Commercial LEO Destination awards in late 2021. However, it is racing to catch up, building an initial single-module station called Haven-1, scheduled to launch in late 2025, that will be able to support four-person crews for up to 40 days.

With funding from its billionaire founder Jed McCaleb and a focus on vertical integration, Vast has not brought in other companies as major partners or vendors for its planned stations beyond SpaceX, which will launch Haven-1 and provide Crew Dragon spacecraft for missions to it. However, the company is now starting to engage with space agencies and companies in other countries for partnerships.

At the ILA Berlin air show June 6, Vast announced it signed a memorandum of understanding with ESA to study potential use by ESA of Haven-1 and future stations. Vast said it would examine if European companies could provide some subsystems and consider using future European crew and cargo spacecraft for those stations.

Max Haot, chief executive of Vast, said in an interview that the agreement was part of efforts to bring in ESA and other space agencies as customers or partners for its space stations.

“The European ecosystem, led by ESA, is a very important partner to any future ISS replacement station,” he said. “A big priority for us is that we build to their requirements and we enable opportunities to fly their payloads and astronauts.”

The agreement, he said, could lead to “deeper links” that could include partnerships with European companies or even a Vast office in Europe. Having the agreement with ESA in place, he said, is “a first step, a signal that they see Vast as a credible partner.”

Vast actively started marketing both Haven-1 and its future, larger stations internationally last fall at the International Astronautical Congress in Azerbaijan. “We’re engaging all countries, including key ones that are part of the ISS,” Haot said. “ESA is the first, but we obviously hope to build momentum in Europe and other regions of the world.”

A VIEW FROM EUROPE

At ILA Berlin, Vast also signed an agreement with European startup The Exploration Company. Under that agreement, The Exploration Company’s Nyx cargo vehicle will go to Vast’s second space station — a larger successor to Haven-1 — as soon as 2028, transporting cargo to and from that station.

It was the latest in a series of agreements and contracts that The Exploration Company has won. In late May, Starlab Space signed a cargo services agreement with the company for three Nyx missions to Starlab. Last September, Axiom Space signed a “pre-booking” agreement for Nyx missions to its space station.

Work on Nyx is now backed by ESA, which selected The Exploration Company, along with Thales Alenia Space, for contracts in May to perform design work on their cargo vehicle concepts. The agency will seek funding from its member states at the next ministerial council meeting in late 2025 for further development, including test flights to the ISS.

“This historic initiative demonstrates ESA’s agility and willingness to act as an anchor client, hence combining public and private funding, like NASA did about 15 years ago,” said Hélène Huby, chief executive of The Exploration Company, in a statement after winning the ESA award. She was referencing NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program for cargo delivery to the ISS, which demonstrated the feasibility of such commercial services and also fueled the growth of SpaceX.

However, the future of Nyx and its Thales counterpart will depend on those commercial stations. With the ISS slated to retire in 2030, ESA is unlikely to buy services from those spacecraft for ISS operations. Those vehicles, then will need to find business from commercial stations, either through ESA or directly with the companies.

Huby said in an interview before the ESA award that the company understood the importance of the U.S. market. It has opened a U.S. office led by Mark Kirasich, a former NASA Orion program manager, to work with American customers and with NASA.

“I want to be strong in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s very important that we start as fast as possible in the U.S.”

This article first appeared in the July 2024 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.

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