During its time in the sky, researchers aboard the International Space Station have studied everything from the environmental stresses of long-term space residence to growing flowers in microgravity. But its potential for research and development is limited in part by its size. Now, NASA’s chief has announced that companies will soon be able to dock their own modules at the ISS.
In recent years, the role of commercial companies in space travel has turned into a small but rapidly-growing cottage industry. For the most part, the industry has been relegated to developing new ways to get crews and cargo from Earth to the ISS. And until now, the habitat modules, or “habs,” have been maintained by the countries and astronauts who run the space station, Amy Thompson reports for Motherboard. But according to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, that’s all about to change.
“Recently, NASA asked the private sector how it might use an available docking port on the ISS,” Bolden wrote in a NASA blog post. “As a result of the responses, this fall, NASA will start the process of providing companies with a potential opportunity to add their own modules and other capabilities to the International Space Station.”
For people who follow space policy, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. While spaceflight was once entirely in NASA’s domain, President Barack Obama has pushed for privatization of the field, with hopes of reducing the burden on the government's budget. But the move also suggests that big changes are coming for the ISS itself, Loren Grush reports for The Verge.
"Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit," NASA deputy associate administrator for Exploration Systems Development Bill Hill said at a press conference in August, Darrell Etherington reports for TechCrunch.
Right now, NASA is on the hook to run the ISS through the 2020s, but after that it’s anyone’s guess as to who will take over. Allowing private companies to start proposing new modules for the space station could smooth the transition over the next few years as well as test out new technologies for future space stations entirely designed and run by commercial entities, Thompson reports.
But while this may be a tiny step towards making space a vacation destination, don’t expect to take regular rocket trips any time soon. While NASA wants to foster this new spaceflight industry, the agency still plans to regulate these companies and is in the process of ironing out the details of space tourism. For the time being, the agency is focused on working with private companies like Bigelow to test out new kinds of ISS modules—such as the expandable chamber that docked this summer. So for now, Space Disneyland is a ways away.