Axiom Space: Privately Going Where No One Has Gone Before
Space is known to be the final frontier, and possibly the most interesting field of experimentation. Space holds the ultimate answer to where we would go and what we will become, at least according to the cosmist movement of the 20th century. Emerged as a pipedream of a few philosophers living in the declining tsarist Russia, it eventually brought the first human into space back in 1961. Since then, the exploration of space has seen people landing on the Moon, lots of uncrewed probes launched to distant planets, and a dense network of in-orbit satellites serving nearly everyone down at earth.
Still, for the bigger part of their history, space flights have been the business of nation states, not private companies. Back in the 20th century, it was simply too expensive for a privately-funded company to solely work on par with superpowers like the U.S. or the U.S.S.R. However, as the space race ended, and technologies developed, now it’s hardly surprising that private companies wish to put the outer space to their commercial use. SpaceX, arguably the most well-known company working in this area, might send people to Mars as early as the next decade. However, they’re hardly the only ones who gaze upon the skies and see dollar signs twinkling between the distant stars. Nobody has ever said it’s impossible to make money and scientific breakthroughs for the benefit of the entire human race in one go.
In this feature, we will be discussing another massive venture into space undertaken by Axiom Space, a private company headed by scientists and former NASA officials. Their goal is to build the private successor to the International Space Station that would be decommissioned between 2024 and 2028. They say it would be cheaper, more commercially efficient, and will serve the humankind just as good as its predecessors. This, however, brings up the question of legal aspects of private space exploration. Aside from commercial satellites and a few fairly insignificant instances of so-called space tourism, this is indeed a strange new world where no one has boldly gone before.
As of today, there are surprisingly few laws regarding space exploration, and they are deliberately vague. In particular, some UN treaties outline the general principles of nations co-existing beyond this earth. The most important of them is the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is commonly known under a more memorable and pronounceable name the Outer Space Treaty. Therein, one can find some common principles that are hard to argue with:
- Whatever you do in space, it has to be in the best interests of the entire humankind.
- The space and other celestial bodies are free to be explored by any nation and cannot be appropriated by any of them.
- No weapons of mass destruction are allowable in the skies.
- Other celestial bodies cannot be used for any hostile purposes.
- Each state is responsible for what they do in space, and has its appropriate jurisdiction over their space objects and their personnel.
- If anything goes wrong, a state can be held liable.
- Finally, they shouldn’t harmfully litter the outer space.
Back then, when the Cold War has arguably reached its peak and two massive superpowers locked horns on Earth and beyond it, those principles were more than reasonable. However, they also included a provision stating that if any non-government company wishes to operate in space, it has to undergo authorization and have supervision by a government or a non-government entity. Again, this wording is quite deliberately vague, and stems from the mutual unwillingness of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. to let any third party see what they’re up to up there. However, the Cold War has ended, and private space explorers are emerging, so this vague wording essentially means these days that a company may register with any country and sort of have a flag of convenience. It also means that technically such a company may choose which entity will be supervising it, especially if the country it has registered with doesn’t have anything remotely close to a government-funded space agency.
Overall, there are five basic conventions recognized by the UN with respect to space. The first of them is the aforementioned 1967 Outer Space Treaty, with the other ones being 1968 Rescue Agreement, which covers the missions to rescue astronauts; the 1972 Liability Convention, which establishes the liability for damages caused in outer space; the 1976 Registration Convention, which requires all objects launched into space to be duly registered; and finally the 1979 Moon Agreement, which governs all national activities on the Moon and other planets.
While these five laws are hardly sufficient to cover everything that can go on in space, especially when it’s operated by private companies, they are arguably capable of dealing with the most problematic issues the industry might face in the short run. For instance, if a privately-owned spaceship crashes into another private spaceship, or into a government-funded station, the state with which those private guys have registered will have to pay for all the damages. The next step will be, of course, to sue the living hell out of those private companies for those financial damages, but that would be the internal matter of the state and the company.
Reports suggest that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is developing a set of rules and requirements to licensing and safety of privately owned spacecraft. However, even once developed, this will only cover the U.S.-based spaceships and their owners
In general, the industry itself is too immature right now to have a complex code of laws and regulations in all countries in the world. In the U.S., however, there is a 1958 Space Act Agreement that entitles NASA to work with any entity, even privately funded, as long as said entity “enables fulfillment of the Administration’s mandate.” And this is where Axiom Space comes in.
Transition Into Post-ISS World
Axiom Space was established back in 2015, though it wasn’t much heard of until the next year. Their website offers a load of quite impressive credentials. Their CEO, founder and president Michael T. Suffredini, for instance, has been the manager of the International Space Station (ISS) at Johnson Space Center for ten years. The company’s team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria and Brent Jett, two highly accomplished astronauts, as well as Amir Blachman, former Managing Director for a space investment company.
So what, in fact, are those guys going to do? In brief, they are well aware that the ISS won’t last forever: in fact, its best shot is just 10 more years, but it’s more likely to be decommissioned in 2025. As long as it’s still running, Axiom Space will use it to start building their own space station. Once the ISS goes south (whatever it means in space), the Axiom’s station will detach and live on as an independent and privately-owned object orbiting the Earth.
According to the company, the price of such station offers a staggering difference with the cost of the ISS: while the latter was worth nearly $100 billion, Axiom’s solution costs only $2.2 billion, which is nearly 50 times cheaper. The company successfully negotiated a Space Act Agreement contract with NASA and subsequently had the scope of that agreement broadened. The agency and the company have already successfully completed a feasibility study on the concept, into which NASA made a significant investment.
Still, even compared to the gargantuan expenses on the ISS, $2.2 billion is a hell lot of money, so the question of who’s going to pay for it is legitimately one of the first ones to pop up in your mind. And, astonishingly to the enthusiasts of innovations these days, these guys aren’t going to hold an ICO. Yes, you heard it right. No ICO. No industry-specific disruption. Nothing on Ethereum. Yes, that is actually possible.
In 2020, Axiom will send a space tourist to the ISS. Both training and the mission to the ISS will cost them money, so the company is already accumulating funds. However, even though such adventures are way more expensive than a tropical safari, they still don’t cost billions. Virgin Galactic, for instance, offers a short-term visit to space for humble $250,000. The price for Axiom’s mission is likely to be higher as it involves a week long stay in space, however, it’s still nothing like a billion dollars. So, most funds will be raised from additional equity investment in case of Axiom Space.
“Axiom has the commercial advantage of multiple revenue streams. Countries send up professional astronauts, companies and individuals go up as private astronauts, and then there are the business lines of research, manufacturing and deep space exploration support (training astronauts and maturing critical systems). The top customer in this venture for the coming five to ten years is indeed the Nation,” Amir Blachman, Axiom Space’s VP for Strategic Development, told lawless.tech.
Not a particular one, though: Axiom Space believes that sovereign countries that cannot afford their own space programs would be happy to send their astronauts to such a facility for a reasonable price. And this assumption looks quite feasible.
So, with the proceeds from space tourism, traditional investment, and foreign countries’ ambitions, Axiom Space is quite likely to have the desired amount of $2.2 billion long before the ISS has its last bow. Added to that are proceedings from exploration support, scientific research, manufacturing, and sponsorship deals. Eventually, Axiom Space’s venture looks not only daring but also quite profitable, and, most importantly, definitely benefiting the entire humankind.
Pros and Cons of Private Space Exploration
The question of possible shortcomings when it comes to private space stations is quite obvious, yet the answer to it is far from simple. In general, there isn’t any possible problem that a private space station can bring, and a state-funded one cannot.
These problems include the obvious danger of travelling to the orbit; the contamination of outer space; the safety of going back to Earth, and similar things.
Legally speaking, the only danger lurking in the dark corners of the outer space is very poor regulatory framework that could govern such endeavors. There are, however, continuing efforts to establish such a framework, considering the ongoing expansion of the private sector beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Still, more businesses means more jobs, which is by no means a disadvantage.
We’re pretty far from exploring other quadrants of our galaxy. Even when it comes to our very own Solar System, we know about it nearly as much as ancient Greek philosophers knew about the Earth’s geography. Space exploration has always been the business for governments that put their cutting-edge science and national pride on stake to reach for the stars, or at least other planets within our closest vicinity. This is no longer the case.
The capitalist utopia (or dystopia) of extraterrestrial plants operating on asteroids or Saturn’s moons is also in a relatively distant future, or another timeline, however, these days we’re witnessing the first steps towards condos on Mars as private companies launch or plan to launch their own massive missions into space. This may be viewed as an expansion into traditionally state-owned realm, however, it looks like a natural evolutionary step for the economy: after all, the Earth isn’t known for having undepletable economic resources.
Axiom Space’s project offers a cheaper alternative for immensely expensive government-funded space stations, which potentially opens the gate to new discoveries that can reshape the way we live as a civilization: after all, the less an experiment costs, the more likely it will be carried out. So, when the International Space Station leaves the stage, the scientific advancement won’t stop. How about a warp drive, huh? We’ve been waiting for a while, you know.
The article was updated with commentary from Axiom Space. Additionally, certain figures have been clarified.
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