As a NASA astronaut for 20 years, Michael Lopez-Alegria conducted 10 spacewalks and set a U.S. record for total spacewalking time (67 hours and 40 minutes) that still stands. Now he heads business development for Houston-based Axiom Space, which aims to send private “spaceflight participants” up to the space station (for $55 million a seat), then to attach its own commercial module to the International Space Station, followed eventually by a free-flying commercial station of its own. Lopez-Alegria talked to Senior Editor Tony Reichhardt in June.
Air & Space: The Russians were taking paying customers up to the space station every couple of years in the early 2000s, but we haven’t seen any of those spaceflight participant flights in almost a decade. What happened?
Lopez-Alegria: Pretty simple. At the time, the station had three crew members, and we were rotating one of the three on shuttle flights and the other two on a [three-seat] Russian Soyuz, leaving a third seat open. Once the shuttle stopped flying, all three crew members started rotating on the Soyuz, so there were no more seats available. The demand was still there, but there was no supply.
What was the idea behind Axiom Space?
Our co-founder, Mike Suffredini, was NASA’s program manager for the International Space Station for ten years until he retired in 2015. He went to work with the other co-founder, Kam Ghaffarian, who at the time owned a company called SGT, which is a large contractor with NASA. They wanted to investigate the viability of a commercial space station, and after studying it for about a year Mike thought it was doable. And here we are.
Bigelow Aerospace already has an experimental module attached to the station, and is planning a commercial module of their own. How is your plan different?
We’re largely appealing to the same markets, which, in the beginning anyway, will be foreign professional astronauts as well as spaceflight participants. There are a couple other lines of revenue—research, space manufacturing, advertising, and something called exploration systems testing. When NASA starts going to points farther than Low Earth Orbit, like cislunar space or Mars, they want to have tested the support equipment and other critical components in space before they deploy them to places that are a lot harder to get to. It’s a lot easier to go fix something in Earth orbit than it is to fix something orbiting the moon. So that’s a sixth line of business, working for the companies and governments developing hardware for exploration.
We’re different from Bigelow in that they use expandable technology, which is sort of like a balloon that they inflate. We are going with a more proven system, basically an aluminum cylinder. Our module is going to be manufactured by the same guys, Thales Alenia, who have built something like 40 percent of the habitable volume on the space station. We don’t want to try anything that’s super hard. I mean, we don’t have much time to get this done. The ISS is going to be de-orbited somewhere between 2024 and 2028, maybe a little later. But this is still a pretty ambitious endeavor. It will take time, and we want to make sure we can get this stuff up there and activated. Trying that with new technology doesn’t seem like the path to success for us.
What does NASA have to do to make it happen?
They have to grant access for somebody to use one of the space station’s berthing ports. There’s only one port located in a place where you could attach something big enough to call a space station, or the beginning of a space station. So we think NASA needs to get on with whatever competitive process they want in order to decide which company is worthy of putting their confidence in.
If you’re an investor, and I come to you to invest a whole bunch of money, you’re going to say “What are the risks?” And if I say, “One of the risks is that we may not win this docking port,” you’re going to think twice. So until that docking port is granted, it’s going to be very difficult to raise a lot of money, and until you raise the money you can’t start constructing a module. So the first domino has to be the granting of the docking port. Then construction comes, and we can launch and dock and activate and start making revenue, and prove our worth to NASA so they can say okay, now we can retire the ISS, because we are confident we’ll have a place to go [in low Earth orbit]. Because we really don’t want a gap in our capability to work in Low Earth Orbit.
Has NASA given any indication of when they might start this competition for the docking port?
Oddly, two years ago, in the summer of 2016, they issued a request for information where they asked industry, “If we wanted to give away [the docking port] what criteria should we use?” A bunch of companies, 19 of us, responded, and NASA indicated that the responses were going to form the basis of a solicitation. But then the election happened, and I don’t pretend to know why it’s taken so long, but they still haven’t done it yet. Recently they issued what’s called a NASA research announcement, asking a lot of the same questions they did in 2016. So we’re encouraging them to use the data they already have to develop a [solicitation].
What agreements do you already have in place with NASA? Even before you attach your own module to the station, you want to send up paying customers, right?
Yes, that’s right. We’re getting a lot of interest from investors in spite of the lack of a docking port, because [flying private customers to the ISS] is already a sustainable business in and of itself. We would like to get NASA and other ISS partners comfortable with our operation. Flying to the ISS and demonstrating that we know what we’re doing is going to be good for them and for us, although we already have a ton of NASA experience within our company. So that’s a real reason to do these precursor flights. We have one planned in 2020, and another one or two planned in 2021. Then we’d like to get our modules up there in 2022.
We have a Space Act Agreement with NASA , and the first phase is complete, a kind of feasibility study to outline what services and utilities we would need from the station. We need to get some power and cooling capacity, et cetera, and we’d need to know how our module affects the mass and center of gravity of the station. So they’ve done all that preliminary work.
Have you already got customers lined up for the 2020 and 2021 flights?
No, we’re talking to [potential customers]. We only recently [in June] announced our campaign to market spaceflight participant flights. We’re agnostic as to which launch vehicle we’d use. It could be Soyuz, which has three seats, it could be the SpaceX Dragon, which has four, or it could be Boeing’s Starliner, which has five. Let’s take the Dragon case in the middle. On short duration flights, which are about ten days, we’d like to have at least one professional astronaut and up to three spaceflight participants. We could have more professionals—it doesn’t really matter to us, the price is effectively the same except for the training. We are fairly far along in negotiations with some countries to provide professional astronauts, but we have just started looking for spaceflight participants.
Are you thinking of astronauts from countries that don’t have their own space programs?
Two different categories: One would be countries that are fairly technologically advanced but don’t have human spaceflight programs. We can help with everything from astronaut selection to training. We have quite a bit of experience within our company. SGT [Ghaffarian’s former company] is a contractor to NASA, and today does all the training for NASA astronauts as well as all the flight control functions in Mission Control for the ISS. So you have a huge knowledge base accessible to our company. We would be able to select and then train and then fly astronauts for these countries. The second category are countries that already have astronauts, but don’t get to fly often enough. And a lot of those are in Europe.
One of the barriers to signing up spaceflight participants in the past was the amount of time required to train in Russia. Will your training be shorter?
Yes, and they won’t have to learn to speak Russian, either. I flew with two of those spaceflight participants, and both of them were in Russia for several months. We’re talking about being able to do our training in about 15 weeks, and it would all be in the U.S., with potentially a one-week trip to Russia to understand the Russian part of the space station.
Most of the space tourists a decade ago actively participated in the onboard experiments, and really tried to pitch in. Do you see that happening on your flights as well?
They can do whatever they want, is the bottom line. But I’ll tell you a story. When I was an astronaut and found out I was going to be flying with tourists, I wasn’t terribly excited about it. I figured this is a place for steely-eyed test pilots, and didn’t think very highly of the concept. I ended up flying about ten days with Anousheh Ansari, and she completely inverted that perspective. I saw how she and the guy I flew home with, Charles Simonyi, were both extremely professional, very courteous, and extremely willing to help. More importantly, she wrote a blog that reached millions of people on the ground and really kind of democratized the experience. It kind of opened my eyes to this notion that space is such a unique and magnificent experience that it ought to be shared with as many people as possible.
With all the experience at Axiom, do you see ways to build or operate a space station that might be better than the way NASA does it?
I hate to say it, but things that the government buys are always going to be more expensive just because they have a lot of bureaucracy and a lot of requirements. That’s the advantage of having a team that’s so experienced, that has sat through all the safety reviews. We can tell which [requirements] are valid, that we really need to consider, and which ones are kind of fluff. I think anybody who’s honest would tell you that you a lot of stuff happens that is just a function of the size of the organization.
Secondly, the ISS was built with pretty old technology, basically 386 processors and 1553 [military standard] data, which is kind of overkill for what we need, and drives costs out the roof. With the speed of processors today, you can do so much more with so much less in terms of weight, volume, and complexity. For instance, some of the gear on the ISS was so big that it had to go outside on the truss structure. And if it breaks it’s a real pain to go fix it. You have to have a spacewalk, or use very complex robotics, whereas now, because of miniaturization, we can put something like that inside, behind a cupboard door. So those are the things that will help us save money.
If everything goes according to your plan, how do you see Earth orbit in 10 or 15 years? Will there be several space stations?
I think probably just one company will benefit from the ISS, which is in a particular orbit. Other companies might want to go to different orbits. But once that one company proves the market, then I think you’ll see more investment, other companies trying to build independent space stations. For the first one, it would be advantageous to start attached to the ISS. Once the market gets proven, and I’m confident it will be, I do think you’ll see a proliferation of stations.
Would you like to go up again yourself?
I’ve had kind of a tongue-in-cheek conversation with Mike [Suffredini]. He said “You can be the first guy to go as soon as you write me a check for $55 million.” [Laughs] I don’t think it’s gonna happen any time soon.