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NASA Opens International Space Station to Space Tourists, New Commercial Ventures

June 7, 2019 by Dan McCue

WASHINGTON – NASA announced Friday it plans to open the International Space Station to businesses and even tourists in a bid to “accelerate a thriving commercial economy in low-Earth orbit.”

The space agency is not selling trips to the space station directly, but instead will allow private companies to book such voyages. It won’t be cheap, however, as NASA officials said at a news conference that they plan to charge the companies about $35,000 a night for use of the station’s facilities.

At those rates, it’s unlikely a low-cost carrier will emerge soon, and that’s without even adding in the cost of rocket flights to and from the station, and the obvious desire to turn a profit.

So far only one company, Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nevada, has reserved confirmed trips.

The company plans to use Elon Musk’s SpaceX to ferry citizen-astronauts to space at least four times. Each flight will have room for four.

Friday’s announcement came as NASA continues to focus on its goal of landing the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024, a project in which private businesses are expected to play a critical role.

NASA will continue research and testing in low-Earth orbit to inform its lunar exploration plans, while also working with the private sector to test technologies, train astronauts and strengthen the burgeoning space economy.

Providing expanded opportunities at the International Space Station to manufacture, market and promote commercial products and services will help catalyze and expand space exploration markets for many businesses, the agency said.

NASA’s ultimate goal in low-Earth orbit is to partner with industry to achieve a strong ecosystem in which the agency is one of many customers purchasing services and capabilities at lower costs.

At present, more than 50 companies already are conducting commercial research and development via the International Space Station’s U.S. National Laboratory.

In addition, NASA has worked with 11 different companies to install 14 commercial facilities on the station that support research and development projects for NASA and the ISS National Lab.

A new NASA directive will enable commercial manufacturing and production and allow both NASA and private astronauts to conduct new commercial activities aboard the orbiting laboratory.

The directive also sets prices for industry use of U.S. government resources on the space station for commercial and marketing activities.

To qualify, commercial and marketing activities must either:

  • require the unique microgravity environment to enable manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application;
  • have a connection to NASA’s mission; or
  • support the development of a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy.

NASA’s directive enabling commercial and marketing activities aboard the space station addresses manufacturing, production, transportation, and marketing of commercial resources and goods, including products intended for commercial sale on Earth.

NASA astronauts will be able to conduct coordinated, scheduled and reimbursable commercial and marketing activities consistent with government ethics requirements aboard the station.

To ensure a competitive market, NASA initially is making available five percent of the agency’s annual allocation of crew resources and cargo capability, including 90 hours of crew time and 175 kg of cargo launch capability, but will limit the amount provided to any one company.

As for its foray into space tourism, NASA said it is currently envisioning two, short-duration private astronaut missions per year, each lasting up to 30 days.

NASA officials said the commercial entity handling the flights will determine crew composition for each mission and ensure private astronauts meet NASA’s medical standards and the training and certification procedures for International Space Station crew members.

Market studies identified private astronaut missions to low-Earth orbit as a key element to demonstrate demand and reduce risk for future commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit, the agency said.

NASA’s long-term goal is to become one of many customers purchasing services from independent, commercial and free-flying habitable destinations in low-Earth orbit.

A robust low-Earth orbit economy will need multiple commercial destinations, and NASA is partnering with industry to pursue dual paths to that objective that either go through the space station or directly to a free-flying destination, the agency said.

Since 2001, seven private citizens have made visits to the international space station, but those trips were arranged through the Russians, which operate half of the station.

At the time, NASA said it was not interested in such ventures.

Dennis Tito, an American businessman and former Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist became the world’s first space tourist when he spent seven days on the International Space Station in April and May 2001.

The most recent space tourist was Canadian Guy Laliberté who flew to the International Space Station in September 2009.

For additional information about opportunities for commercial activities aboard the International Space Station, click here.

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