out of this world

NASA taps Houston startup to create commercial habitat to attach to the International Space Station

A Houston space startup has been selected by NASA to design the first commercial habitat to attach to — and eventually replace — the International Space Station. Photo via axiomspace.com

A Houston-based space startup has been named the winner of a NASA competition — and the prize is getting to create the first commercial habitat in space.

Axiom Space has won NASA's NextSTEP-2 Appendix I solicitation, a call for a commercial habitat to be attached to the International Space Station's Harmony module, or Node 2. Axiom is working to create a commercial space station that would eventually serve as a replacement for ISS.

"We appreciate the bold decision on the part of NASA to open up a commercial future in low Earth orbit," Co-founder Michael Suffredini says in a news release. "This selection is a recognition of the uniquely qualified nature of the Axiom team and our commercial plan to create and support a thriving, sustainable, and American-led LEO ecosystem."

Axiom was founded by Suffredini, former NASA ISS program manager, and space entrepreneur Kam Ghaffarian in 2016. The company has plans to launch a node module, research facility, manufacturing operations, crew habitat, and large-windowed Earth observatory all to be attached to the ISS. The targeted launch date is set for late 2024.

Part of Axiom's long-term plans include an Earth observatory. Photo via axiomspace.com

"Axiom exists to provide the infrastructure in space for a variety of users to conduct research, discover new technologies, test systems for exploration of the Moon and Mars, manufacture superior products for use in orbit and on the ground, and ultimately improve life back on Earth," continues Suffredini.

"As we build on the legacy and foundation established by the ISS Program, we look forward to working with NASA and the ecosystem of current and future international partners on this seminal effort."

Ghaffarian has decades of space expertise and founded Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies, which went on to be a NASA engineering services provider before being acquired by KBR in 2018. Now, KBR — along with Boeing, Thales Alenia Space Italy, Intuitive Machines, and Maxar Technologies — serves as a partner to Axiom.

"A commercial platform in Earth orbit is an opportunity to mark a shift in our society similar to that which astronauts undergo when they see the planet from above," Ghaffarian, who serves as Axiom's executive chairman, says in the release.

"Our goal is to advance the state of humanity and human knowledge. I am glad to see the Axiom team, with its advanced human spaceflight, engineering, and operations expertise, recognized for its potential to do just that and build off of ISS."

The Axiom Segment will be attached to the ISS until the station is phased out. Then, Axiom will launch a power source into space to serve Axiom's operations before detaching from the decommissioned ISS all together. Eventually, the Axiom Segment will be a free-flying commercial space station.

"There is a fantastically steep learning curve to human spaceflight," Suffredini says in the release. "The collective experience at Axiom is quite far along it. Because we know firsthand what works and what doesn't in [low Earth orbit], we are innovating in terms of design, engineering, and process while maintaining safety and dramatically lowering costs."

A Houston space medicine research organization has partnered with a video game maker that has created surgery simulation technology. Photo via levelex.com

A Houston-based organization affiliated with NASA has teamed up with a video game company to advance virtual simulation in space medicine.

The Translational Research Institute for Space Health, known as TRISH, in partnership with NASA in a consortium led by Baylor College of Medicine, California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge has advanced a new approach for space medicine using video game technology by collaborating with video game company, Level Ex.

"We discovered Level Ex through a process of landscaping the many virtual simulation companies that were out there," says Andrew Peterman Director of Information System at TRISH. "We especially noted those that were on the cutting edge of the technology."

Based in Houston, TRISH aims to collaborate with the best and the brightest to revolutionize space health, providing grants to companies with innovative concepts. With Level Ex, they found a new approach to decode earthly medical technologies in space.

Level Ex, a Chicago-based company created in 2015 was founded to provide training games for doctors to use to practice surgeries and procedures. The games are interactive, with the virtual patient reacting to the actions of the player. The training simulations consist of in-depth and physics-driven medical simulations that are verified by doctors in their advisory board.

"We're hoping to completely change the ways that doctors stay up to speed," says Level Ex founder-and-CEO Sam Glassnberg.

With their ongoing collaboration with TRISH, they have a challenge that's out of this world. In space, astronauts have limited space for medical tools and run on a limited crew. This makes providing basic medical training to all astronauts especially important.

Especially since the body begins to react to the new environmental conditions of space missions. The effects can be small or lead to new changes or challenges for astronauts who take on long-range missions. Astronauts may see their bodies slowly start to lose bone and muscle mass. Their fluid begins to shift toward their head, leading to increased risks of hypertension and thrombosis.

All of these are challenges NASA is working to address with the help of gaming technology from Level Ex that innovates the technology with higher-level capability and training. Combining video game technology and medical simulation applications to incorporate and explore the interplay of environmental conditions found in space.

"What we really liked about Level Ex is that they have an amazing team both on the clinical and technical side, says Peterman. "They are a group of former big-name game developers who along with clinical experts have married technology and medicine with their platform producing full in engine physics-driven real simulations rather than video playback."

The astronauts will train using simulations that allow them to practice a procedure in zero gravity conditions and even simulate the gravity conditions of Mars. The game will also allow astronauts to get their own on-screen avatar with their medical information thus allowing fellow astronauts to gain more practice and experience with fewer variables in space.

The advanced medical simulation platform has potential for commercial uses on earth, improving the range of the technology to simulate new, rare, and complex scenarios across a range of medical specialties, allowing doctors to practice a range of difficult scenarios without putting patient lives at risk.

Peterman says that the partnership is expected to continue into the future for immediate applications along with other innovations in astronaut healthcare, including autonomous frameworks to provide medical knowledge in outer space.