Axiom: From Space Tourism to Commercial Space Station
All eyes turned to Mars this month in the ongoing race to find life on the Red Planet, with missions from the United States, China, and the United Arab Emirates all converging in February. The next step to conquering the galaxy is to build a rocket to Mars that can carry humans there and back to Earth before they succumb to radiation, space madness, or a tribble invasion. But humans have rarely cracked the front door much past low-Earth orbit, except for a quick trip to
a Hollywood movie set the moon. NASA is planning a return, as part of its long-range plan to send humans to Mars. A five-year-old NewSpace startup called Axiom Space figures to be a big part of that plan, as the primary contractor to build what’s touted as the first commercial space station.
The NewSpace Unicorn Club
Last year, we talked about this very topic in our list of companies building the next generation of commercial space stations. At the time, Axiom had only raised $20 million but had already secured a contract with NASA to supply the space agency with a new module for the International Space Station (ISS) that will serve as the nucleus of a commercial space station called AxStation. Six months later at warp venture speed, the company added another $130 million for a total of $150 million from an eclectic list of nearly 20 investors. It’s a mix of both general venture capital organizations and firms that specialize in the space economy. One name of note is David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman of The Carlyle Group, who is backing Declaration Partners, one of the VC firms who participated in this month’s Series B.
So, suddenly there’s serious money in the coffers for Axiom, enough to earn it a $1 billion valuation, making it only the fifth existing New Space unicorn after SpaceX, Relativity Space, Rocket Lab, and Planet. (The list does not include billionaire-funded ventures like Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin.) All but SpaceX are valued at $2.3 billion or less, according to CB Insights’ unicorn tracker. Of course, SpaceX is in an orbit all of its own. On the same day Axiom announced its mega-round, Feb. 16, SpaceX added $850 million to its own coffers, launching it to a valuation of about $74 billion. It’s now the No.2 most valuable startup in the world after Beijing-based ByteDance, the company that brought you yet another sign of our cultural apocalypse – TikTok.
While still light years from being a $1 trillion industry, we certainly weren’t seeing these kinds of dollars being invested in NewSpace startups outside of companies like SpaceX until the last few years. Rocket Lab was the first of the newcomers to cross $1 billion in value in 2017 – a year before its first successful commercial launch – to eventually establish itself as one of the few real competitors in the launch sector to SpaceX. Both Planet and Relativity Space joined the club just last year. The former operates the largest satellite fleet for geospatial intelligence, while the latter has built the world’s largest 3D printer for rockets. Axiom, meanwhile, is trying to corner the market on commercial space stations and much more.
Space Tourism and Fast Cash
More on that in one moment. First, let’s talk about the other way that Axiom has found to fund its business outside of private money – selling private tickets to the ISS. The Houston-based company is also in the space tourism business. Three ultra-wealthy dudes are reportedly paying $55 million each for an eight-day vacation on the space station on a little excursion coordinated by Axiom. Leading the mission is the company’s vice president, Michael López-Alegría, a former NASA astronaut who flew to space four times. The four-person crew will hitch a ride on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule atop a Falcon 9 rocket. It’s unclear what kind of cut Axiom receives, but NASA’s bill for food, lodging, and WiFi (yeah, not free in space) is reportedly about $1 million for the duration of the crew’s stay.
Axiom would like to offer at least two private and public flights to the ISS each year, according to a story in Gizmodo, which also reported that Tom Cruise could be shipped out to the space station to
search for Xenu film a movie.
Full-Service Space Provider
Axiom is one of a number of space startups that are serving multiple markets. Axiom also supports space research, astronaut training, even something to do with brand awareness and marketing.
It’s not a surprise that the company has already established a broad range of services and core competencies given the experience of the co-founders. President/CEO Michael Suffredini served as the ISS program manager for a decade, among other adventures in space. Executive chairman Kam Ghaffarian’s firm, Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies (SGT), trains NASA’s astronauts and operates the ISS. Defense contractor KBR (KBR) bought SGT in 2018 and kept the management team at the time, but it’s unclear how involved Ghaffarian is today with his former company. Apparently, Ghaffarian is a true serial space entrepreneur, as he also founded Intuitive Machines, an engineering firm that specializes in space systems and 3D printing.
Commercial Space Station
No doubt some parts of Axiom’s new commercial space station will be 3D printed, given the increased use of the technology in the aerospace industry in general. And, no doubt, the space station is the biggest thing going at the company. Axiom pulling off a commercial space station would be the equivalent – maybe even bigger – of SpaceX getting an astronaut crew to the ISS and back home safely. The plan is to attach the first module, the Axiom Hub One, to the ISS in 2024. The cozy compartment for berthing, research, and manufacturing will become the nucleus of the station, which is being constructed in four stages:
Space stations should not only be functional enough to sustain life and capture urine in zero gravity. They need to look cool, too. The man charged with giving Hub One a homey but avant-garde feel is a French industrial architect, Philippe Starck. Apparently, the “egg-like structure symbolizes nest-like comfort complete with unobstructed views of our home planet – the first such place for humans to truly contemplate our place in the cosmos.”
Cue the Star Trek theme music.
The NewSpace industry is gaining altitude, but still remains mostly a pre-revenue or revenue-losing venture. So it was only a matter of time before the special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) came sniffing around. Virgin Galactic (SPCE) was the first to go over to the dark side in 2019, with both Momentus and Astra Space set to follow this year with reverse mergers. Axiom obviously elected to stay private for now but building stuff in space is expensive, with the ROI on a commercial space station more than a decade down the road. So don’t be too surprised if you see Axiom and some of these other well-funded space companies go SPAC-y and give retail investors the short end of the stick
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