Although it’s somewhat open for debate, the International Space Station is currently scheduled for retirement somewhere between 2024 and 2028. Shortly thereafter, Houston-based Axiom has big plans for the real estate it currently occupies.
The firm’s overall plans for space are pretty aggressive, including an extension for the Space Station to accommodate tourists as soon as 2020. When the ISS runs its course, this module would be self-sufficient and open to expanded use for research and manufacturing.
The company feels that by 2027 the ability to offer contract manufacturing, or at least lease the available space at their new outpost for production, will be a leading revenue source for the company. Axiom feels this will be made possible by advancements in 3D printing that would allow for manufacturing products like jet turbines, solar panels, satellites and optical fiber.
There are two primary reasons for Axiom’s enthusiasm.
First, costs for producing space station-like hubs are down nearly 90 percent since the ISS was made in 1998. This makes manufacturing in the microgravity environment of space, which is ideal for maintaining cleanroom-like conditions, more affordable to more countries and more companies.
Lower-cost real estate in space also means specialized operations like repairing and deploying small satellites will be subject to greater competition because it could be done at a fraction of the current cost.
Additionally, Axiom is looking to partner with California-based Made In Space, which built the 3D printers currently onboard the Space Station. Made In Space also developed the Archinaut – an advanced 3D printer with robotic assembly arms.
Archinaut would allow for manufacturing larger pieces of equipment, as well as integrating electrical components. Combining these capabilities means supports for large telescopes, parts for spacecraft and other larger and more complex equipment could be made in space, instead of relying on spacecraft transport.
This type of space-based manufacturing tech removes additional cost and takes the size of the spacecraft and its payload limitations completely out of the equation. There would essentially be no size limits when looking at what can be built in space.