Private space stations are coming. What can tourists expect?

A new era of space stations is about to kick off. NASA has announced three commercial space station proposals for development, joining an earlier proposal by Axiom Space.

These proposals are the first attempts to create places for humans to live and work in space outside the framework of government space agencies. They’re part of what has been called “Space 4.0”, where space technology is driven by commercial opportunities. Many believe this is what it will take to get humans to Mars and beyond.

There are currently two occupied space stations in low Earth orbit (less than 2,000km above Earth’s surface), both belonging to space agencies. The International Space Station (ISS) has been occupied since November 2000 with a typical population of seven crew members. The first module of the Chinese station Tiangong was launched in April 2021, and is intermittently occupied by three crew.

The ISS, however, is slated to retire at the end of the decade, after nearly 30 years in orbit. It has been an important symbol of international cooperation following the “space race” rivalry of the Cold War, and the first truly long-term space habitat.

Plans for multiple private space stations represent a major shift in how space will be used. But will these stations change the way people live in space, or replicate the traditions of earlier space habitats?

The International Space Station, humanity’s most intensively inhabited site in space.

Commercializing life in space

The change is driven by NASA’s support for commercializing space. This emphasis really started about a decade ago with the development of private cargo services to supply the ISS, like SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, and private vehicles to deliver astronauts to orbit and the Moon, such as SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, and Lockheed Martin’s Orion capsules.

Start-up Axiom Space was awarded a $140 million contract by NASA in February 2020 for a private module to be attached to the ISS. Axiom announced Philippe Starck will design a luxurious interior.

Starck compares it to “a nest, a comfortable and friendly egg”. There’s also a huge viewing area with two-meter-high windows for tourists to look out at Earth and space.

The first module is due to be delivered to the ISS in 2024 or 2025, with others following each year. By the time the ISS is decommissioned around 2030, Axiom’s modules will become a free-flying station.

Axiom has signed a contract with French-Italian contractor Thales Alenia Space, which built close to 50% of the ISS’s habitable volume for NASA and the European Space Agency, to produce its habitat.

Several modules, including a large viewing module, all labeled with the corporate logo of Axiom Space are added to the front of the International Space Station in this concept image
An artist’s rendering of the new modules Axiom Space plans to add to the International Space Station in coming years.
Axiom Space

But there’s more. Three other groups have just been selected for the first phase of NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations competition to build free-flying space stations to replace ISS.

First, a group composed of Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin proposed a station called Starlab to provide research, manufacturing, and tourism opportunities. This was almost immediately followed by a competing project called Orbital Reef, by Blue Origin, Sierra Space, and Boeing. A third project, by Northrop Grumman, will be made of modules based on its existing Cygnus cargo vehicle.

A corporate convention display booth with a giant photograph of a space station.