For the past few years, NASA has been grappling with the question of how it should continue to support operations on the International Space Station—operations that cost the agency between $3 and 4 billion annually. Last week, as Loren Grush reports for the Verge, NASA took an important step toward opening the ISS up to private sector funding, announcing that parts of the satellite will become available to commercial opportunities, including tourism.
Three senior NASA members broke the news at the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York, proclaiming that “the International Space Station is open for commercial business.” In a statement, the agency explained that a new directive has enabled such activities as “manufacturing, production, transportation, and marketing of commercial resources and goods, including products intended for commercial sale on Earth.” According to Wired’s Daniel Oberhaus, this means that companies will be able to pay astronauts to advertise their products, as well as use the space station for manufacturing and other profitable ventures. What’s more, NASA said it is making one ISS port accessible to commercial modules, and that it will allow private astronaut missions of up to 30 days.
This marks a shift for the agency, which has long shied away from commercializing the ISS; as Grush points out, NASA once prohibited purely commercial products from being sent to the station, and forbade its astronauts from working on experiments that could be used to make a profit. But the agency is now looking to free up money for other projects, particularly “its goal of landing the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, where American companies also will play an essential role in establishing a sustainable presence,” the statement explains.
The Trump administration has been advocating for private funding of the ISS. Last year, the government said it would withdraw financial support of the station by 2025, and instead allocate millions of dollars toward privatization efforts. The plan was met with criticism by those who worried that businesses would balk at the cost of investing in the ISS, and that scientific efforts would suffer as a result of commercialization.
The administration no longer intends to completely revoke its ISS funding, Oberhaus reports, but NASA is moving ahead with its plan to offload some of the station’s costs onto private companies. “The agency’s ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which NASA is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower cost,” according to the statement.
For now, NASA is imposing strict rules on how businesses and private astronauts can operate on board the ISS. To qualify for access to the space station, commercial and marketing activities must require a unique microgravity environment for whatever product they hoping to develop, have a connection to NASA’s mission or “support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy,” the agency says. NASA crews will be made available to commercial enterprises for no more than 90 hours each year, commercial cargo will be limited to just under 386 pounds annually, and only two short-duration private astronaut missions will be allowed on board the ISS per year.
Accessing the space station will, inevitably, come with an enormous price tag. NASA estimates it will cost a crew member $11,250 per day to use the life support systems and toilet and an additional $22,500 per day for supplies like food, air, medical kits and exercise equipment. But Bigelow Aerospace, a Nevada-based tech start-up, is already making plans to launch the ultra-rich into orbit. On Tuesday, the company announced that it had paid “substantial sums as deposits” to SpaceX in order to secure seats on up to four launches to the ISS, once Elon Musk’s company begins sending manned missions to the station. The cost of a seat? An estimated $52 million.
NASA opines the new initiative will help expand the horizons of the ISS, which has been devoted to scientific study since it launched in 1998. “New opportunities are needed to move beyond research and development,” the agency writes, “and the station will play an essential role in enabling those opportunities for new commercial markets needed to build a sustainable ecosystem in low-Earth orbit.”