AS a kid growing up in South Africa, I loved films and television programmes about space. They included Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, Thunderbirds Are Go, Battlestar Galactica and the Star Wars movies.
At night I used a small pair of binoculars to scour the heavens from the Eastern Cape coastline. In the southern night sky, to my child’s eyes, the stars glistened with promise like brightly polished diamonds scattered on a dark velvet cloth. Little did I know that one day I would become a shareholder in a space station myself.
What was science fiction then is real now. The International Space Station (ISS) is the second brightest object in the night sky. It is an overnight flight to ISS, a three-day trip to the moon and a seven-month voyage to Mars. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) has two unmanned spacecraft that are already flying beyond our solar system in interstellar space.
As the only habitable destination in space, and a proven model for humans to live and work in space, space stations will play a critical role in humanity’s future.
On Sunday I attended the Axiom Mission 2 (Ax-2) launch to the ISS from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Ax-2 tells the story of how the space sector is developing and changing. The mission crew launched in a Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket from the iconic 39a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center. This is the same pad from which Nasa launched its Apollo missions to the moon until 1972. But a great deal has changed since then.
As Senator Bill Nelson, the administrator of Nasa and a former astronaut, said at the pre-mission briefing on Sunday, Nasa now works with both commercial and international partners.
Ax-2 is a four-way partnership. Nasa has two commercial partners — Axiom Space, the leading space station company in which I am an ivestor, and SpaceX, the leading rocket launch company — and an international partner, the Saudi Space Commission.
The mission took four astronauts to the ISS to live and work there for eight days. It is led by 61-year-old Peggy Whitson, Nasa’s most experienced commander. Earlier in her career, Whitson set the record for spending the most time living and working in space at 665 days. John Shoffner, a 67-year-old American businessman, is the pilot. This is his second mission to the ISS, having flown on Ax-1 in 2022. There are two mission specialists from Saudi Arabia: Ali AlQarni and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first female Muslim astronaut in space.
Aboard the space station, the crew will orbit Earth 16 times every 24 hours, travelling through 16 sunrises and sunsets every day. They will gaze at Earth through the seven windows of the ISS dome or cupola, giving them the profound spiritual experience to which so many astronauts testify: a view of our beautiful and fragile blue planet from 408km away.
They are not space tourists, though. The crew will conduct more than 20 research projects on the ISS, on topics ranging from cancer prevention to in-orbit manufacturing in zero gravity.
Ax-2 confirms that the future of the ISS is now with Axiom Space, the US company founded by the visionary Dr Kam Ghaffarian and Mike Suffredini, one of Nasa's most respected former senior officials.
Axiom is building the successor to the ISS under contract to Nasa, and while it is doing so it has exclusive access to one of the eight ISS docking gates. The company will own and operate the new space station in partnership with Nasa.
In 2025, Axiom is scheduled to launch the first module of the new space station, and it will be attached to the ISS. A transition period will follow in which the ISS is decommissioned while Axiom attaches the remaining modules of the new space station.
At some point before 2030, the ISS will be de-orbited by Nasa and Axiom Station will become a standalone, state-of-the-art space station that reimagines the way humans will live and work in space.
Space stations are here to stay. The ISS is the ninth to be inhabited by crews and Axiom Station will be the 10th. The first space station, Salyut 1, was launched by the Soviet Union (USSR) in 1971. During the 1970s, the USSR also launched three military space stations, Salyut 2, 3 and 5. In concept, they were primitive precursors of Darth Vader’s Death Star in the Star Wars films. Death Star was a vast military space station that was destined to enable the Empire to dominate the Universe.
Cold War rivalry did not allow the USSR to dominate space militarily, however. In 1973, the US launched a civilian space station, Skylab. The USSR space station programme transitioned in the 1980s to the civilian Mir programme.
With the Cold War over, in 1993 Nasa started building the current ISS in partnership with the EU, Canada and Japan and invited Russia to join the project, creating the largest and most successful experiment in peaceful international cooperation in space.
Today, more than 250 astronauts have made more than 400 flights to the ISS. A fully crewed ISS has seven astronauts aboard but numbers have grown to as many as 13. The ISS is divided into two sections, one managed by Nasa and its allies and the other by Russia, and so far there has been peaceful cooperation between them.
The future of Russia’s participation in the ISS programme is uncertain after its invasion of Ukraine. Moscow defiantly announced a partnership with China to place a new space station in orbit around the moon.
China launched its own space station, Tiangong (Sky Palace), in 2022. Tiangong is about one fifth of the size of the ISS and can accommodate up to six astronauts and two docked ships.
While the ISS has a high level of transparency about its mission and operations, with the cooperation of 15 nations and an expanding number of international and commercial partners, there is much we do not know about Tiangong. Unlike the ISS, which is purely civilian, it appears to be a military/civilian fusion cell more akin to the USSR’s Salyut 2,3 and 5.
For example, Tiangong is equipped with a new microwave beam technology that can transmit energy to Earth around the clock. It could be used to distribute solar power but could potentially be a powerful new energy weapon. Which it will be remains to be seen.
Later this year, I will host the first conference on space stations in Washington, DC to help ensure they remain dedicated to peaceful projects based on the ISS model as opposed to Darth Vader’s Death Star.
As Peggy Whitson has said, the ISS is a key bridge between Earth and travel to deep space. The new Axiom Station will serve as a halfway station for Nasa’s planned Artemis lunar base scheduled for 2027, and it will host a valuable training programme for future missions to Mars.
Axiom Station will be the model for future space stations that could be placed in orbit around the moon and Mars. And it will be the base for peaceful development of all the undiscovered resources in our solar system with its brilliant star, eight planets and 146 moons.
*Andre Pienaar is the founder and CEO of C5 Capital, a minority shareholder of Axiom Space. He is also the majority investor in NVWB Media Group, the publishers of Vrye Weekblad.
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