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May 9, 2024 - LIMITLESS Magazine

Rocket science

Axiom Space balances risk with reward in its quest to design a new space station.

Josh Baxt

Magazine

Axiom Space is designing a next-generation space station, providing a safe and comfortable environment for astronauts to live and work in orbit.

Cape Canaveral’s Launchpad 39A has a storied history. Built in 1969, it has served as the launch site from the Apollo to Space Shuttle eras and has now been re-tasked for commercial space missions. On January 18, 2024, 39A launched Axiom Space’s Ax-3 crewed mission to the International Space Station (ISS). When the rocket went up, the mission control team cheered. Even now, decades later, spaceflight still evokes a sense of childlike wonder.

“I remember when I was a kid, staying home from school ‘sick’ to watch space launches,” says George Motter, senior vice president at Axiom Space. “That’s what got me interested—the engineering, the exploration. As humans, our need to explore is always constant and never quite fulfilled.”

Motter is chief engineer for Axiom Station, which will be the first commercial space laboratory. He and his colleagues have big dreams for the structure, which will enable new innovations in physics, biology, and other sciences that thrive in microgravity. They want this next-generation orbital platform to be useful and comfortable— one step closer to our science fiction dreams.

Axiom Station is the greatest engineering challenge of Motter’s career. Gravity never takes a day off, and space is unforgiving. A million things have to go right—every single day—and one bad event can spell disaster. The station will be home to astronauts performing extensive research missions. It has to be both safe and sustainable.

To get there, Axiom Space needs a host of innovations and trusted partners to mitigate risk. Marsh McLennan Agency (MMA) and its parent company, Marsh, specifically the Aerospace team, have provided a safety net to help Axiom Space and its colleagues manage the risks associated with launches, landings, business operations, and the vastness of space. Marsh and MMA’s ability to support the space industry, and navigate its many complexities, has given Axiom Space extra room to innovate.

“Axiom is a business of ‘firsts,’” says George Phillips, a senior vice president at MMA’s Richmond, Virginia office. “We are consistently thinking outside of the box as we design coverage to protect their balance sheet. Axiom Space is truly an innovative and groundbreaking company. We’ve been pleased to partner with them to develop new insurance solutions for all of their missions and services.”

Commercializing space 

For kids large and small, space has been a tantalizing dream for decades. It seems so close, and it actually is. The ISS is approximately 250 miles from the Earth’s surface—about the same distance as Washington, D.C. from New York City.

But those are long miles. The technical details associated with launching a multi-ton rocket into space are daunting. The vehicle must rapidly accelerate to approximately 17,800 miles per hour just to escape gravity. And then, once in orbit, it must sustain life automatically, with minimal outside support. These challenges have made space flight difficult and expensive, with only a precious few humans even having the opportunity. Axiom Space wants to change that.

“The idea is to provide the means of exploration, to live and work in space,” says Motter. “We want to provide opportunities, not just for government agencies but for everyone, everywhere. We want space travel to serve commerce and enable new science and do all the things we can’t do on Earth because gravity limits us.”

Axiom Space is innovating, but they’re not reinventing the wheel. NASA’s Skylab was launched in 1973, and the basic principles remain the same. The issue now is refinement. Taking existing technologies and making them more reliable, efficient, lighter, and cost-effective. 

“We want to bring the costs down,” says Motter, “so space flight becomes routine, like air travel.”

The next level

Motter’s primary focus is making Axiom Station as useful, cost-effective, and safe as possible. The platform is being designed as a closed loop, in which most consumables will be regenerated—air, water, fuel, and eventually food. Much of this technology already exists in some form, but Axiom Space engineers want to notch it up to the next level.

These are not minor refinements. The more sustainable Axiom Station can become, the fewer resupply missions will be needed, which means less fighting with gravity and less risk. 

Axiom Station’s first piece, Habitat One (Hab One), will be attached to the ISS to take advantage of the station’s existing life support and other infrastructure, easing the transition as the older station is decommissioned.

“Researchers and scientists who have experiments in the ISS will have the ability to move those over to Axiom Station,” says Motter. “When the ISS is retired, and we depart, we’ll be able to save the science, support the research, and continue the mission.”

Still, Hab One is not a one-off project but rather a template. Axiom Space looks forward to Hab Two, Three, Four, etc. Instead of building expensive, bespoke modules, the company will continuously refine the initial blueprint.

“We are going to add habitat modules, payload modules, power-producing modules,” says Motter. “We’ll just keep adding and adding to the station as those needs arise to support more crew, larger payloads, and more research. We want to continuously build—not just Axiom Station but, in a sense, a city in space.” 

Balancing innovation with risk 

For the engineering team, building Axiom Station, or any other space-going hardware, means identifying and mitigating thousands of potential risks, both obvious and obscure. What happens if micro-meteorites hit the station, radiation zaps a computer, or the platform loses power? What constitutes a manageable vs. catastrophic risk, and what measures must the team take to mitigate the first and eliminate the second?

“There are several ways we can control risk,” says Motter. “We can make a part so robust it just can’t break, but then we’re probably making something that’s complex, heavy, and expensive. We can duplicate parts, creating redundancies, or we can carefully consider where to place the part so it’s at less risk.”

Sometimes, the team combines strategies, such as placing duplicate parts in different parts of the station. One area might face greater risk of encountering micrometeorites or solar radiation. The latter can play havoc on computer systems, turning them into expensive bricks. 

One approach is to simply shield the station’s computers so nothing harmful can get through. But again, this adds weight and expense. The more efficient strategy is to make the computers more resilient, so that if something goes wrong, they can be quickly rebooted, just like any consumer model.

The engineers mix and match shielding, redundancy, and placement to create the most cost-effective and safe systems. The process requires continuous testing and iteration, looking at how each part responds to vacuum, vibration, radiation, and temperature extremes.

“We’ll take it colder or hotter than it’ll ever see in practice,” says Motter. “Sometimes, we test how hot it will go before failing. By understanding those bounds, we can assure ourselves the parts will survive and keep running.”

Robust insurance coverage helps make emerging innovation possible. Complex missions and equipment can be challenging to insure, but the market has always been willing to underwrite all types of companies and risks, says Patton Kline, Aviation & Space, managing director at Marsh, New York. 

“Insurance is a key enabler for the space industry and overall space economy. Space policies are designed to cover the technical risk from launch through the satellite lifetime,” Kline says.

The space flight ecosystem

Fifty years ago, there were two main players in space: NASA and its Soviet counterpart. Now, the ecosystem includes Axiom Space and several other private companies. There’s a lot of cross-pollination within this ecosystem. NASA continues to provide insights and leadership, but commercial partners are always evolving new approaches.

Axiom Space has built a melting pot of expertise. Before his current position, Motter spent more than a decade at Space X. Many of his colleagues today have joined from similar corporate startups and government agencies.

“One thing that brought me to Axiom Space is the way we are merging traditional and contemporary aerospace,” says Motter.  “Traditional efforts tend to move more deliberately and focus on intensive design. Now, we’re trying to think more agilely and quickly, iteratively testing as we advance these systems. We’re merging that quick and agile with older processes to come up with the best of both worlds.” 

Fast and agile are critically important because the Axiom Station has a clear deadline: The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2030.

“My job is to build an awesome station within a reasonable budget and within time,” says Motter. “We’ve got to launch before the end of the ISS. But at the same time, we need to reduce the risks as much as possible. We’re not rushing, but we’re not resting either.”

A new generation of space station

Axiom Station will be the next step in the long progression from the spartan living arrangements on the ISS, and its predecessors to the officers’ quarters in the Starship Enterprise. Don’t expect to book a luxury suite in space anytime soon, but comfort will be far more than an afterthought. 

One unique component will be the Axiom Earth Observatory, a conical section nestled on the module’s Earth-side (top and bottom have no meaning in space), offering a panoramic view of the home planet and surrounding space and providing crewmembers a place for observation and reflection.

The observatory is one of many features being incorporated into Axiom Station. The idea is to create an environment that offers something approaching true work-life balance. On the ISS, crewmembers rest in tiny, closet-sized rooms. Their sleeping bags are tethered to the walls, so people don’t randomly float around the station—a disorienting experience to wake up to.

The Axiom Station quarters are being designed with a little more area, offering private places where off-duty crew can read, call family, and get some good sleep. The goal is to create a place where station residents can relax at the end of their long workdays.

“Our goal is to make space both more functional and more enjoyable,” says Motter. “It won’t be quite like a hotel, but the crew will be able to have more opportunities to enjoy their off time. The ISS and past stations have been geared more toward functionality, and we wanted to nudge the needle a bit more towards comfort.” 

A new and improved space suit

While Axiom Station will be the home base, there will be times when crewmembers will perform extravehicular activities to conduct maintenance and perhaps other tasks. Current spacesuits were mostly designed in the 1980s and have been needing improvement.

Axiom Space has been working closely with NASA to develop the Axiom Extravehicular Mobility Unit, the next-generation spacesuit Axiom Station crewmembers and NASA Artemis moon mission astronauts will all wear.

The spacesuit will be a safer, more usable, and stylish upgrade. It will be more streamlined and easily customizable for all users. From a work standpoint, the suits will be more flexible, supporting more diverse scientific applications, better mobility, and greater precision. The new suits will also have numerous additional components to enhance safety.

Small, regular wins

Motter and his team have been having a lot of fun lately as they complete designs and conduct reviews. The fast, iterative approach requires designing, testing, learning from their mistakes, redesigning, and retesting. In other words, they’re not waiting for a part to reach flight quality before testing it. They send each component’s specs to the machine shop, then put it through its paces on a vibration table, or other apparatus to see what will happen.

“Sometimes things fly off the table and break, but that’s okay,” says Motter. “We’re going to learn a lot, and we’re going to iterate, and by the time we’re done, that box is going to be the best it could ever be.”  

Axiom Space engineers are currently testing thrusters and life support systems, finding better ways to move, remove humidity, and detect smoke. This process is amazing for the team as they watch their designs come to life. Each little win brings them one step closer to a safe launch.

“The crew’s health, safety, and welfare are our responsibility,” says Motter. “We’re not just building cool space hardware, this is going to be their home. We take this process extremely seriously because their lives are in our hands, and we are going to build them the best house they’ve ever lived in. It’ll keep them safe and give them the ability to take that next step for humanity, learning to live, grow, function, and thrive in space.” 

See video below: MMA Senior Vice President George Phillips talks about working with Axiom Space

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