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NASA opens the International Space Station to businesses, private citizens

Reuters/NASA

Flight engineers perform a series of spacewalks outside the International Space Station in this 2013 photo.
Reuters/NASA Flight engineers perform a series of spacewalks outside the International Space Station in this 2013 photo.
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The International Space Station is open for business.

A few years down the road, the station may no longer be completely under NASA’s purview, but instead run by a myriad Earth-based businesses that test their technologies and manufacture things in space, all while sending their private astronauts for stays on the orbiting laboratory.

NASA is laying the groundwork for that future now, with a new policy that outlines the unprecedented opportunities it’ll make available for commercial businesses that want to take advantage of the station’s capabilities.

Under the new policy announced Friday, NASA would allow commercial businesses access to parts of the station to make, market and promote products, train private astronauts and even use ISS resources for commercial activities — a dramatic change from its prior stance of prohibiting commercial activity on the station.

The new direction is part of a long-term goal for the ISS. NASA plans to cede over control of the space station to commercial companies at some point in the 2020s, freeing it to focus on other projects, such as its planned return to the lunar surface by 2024.

“The vision here is to start early so that there can be potentially a private sector station that could serve NASA needs,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations.

“We realize there is a physical end to the space station ... now is the time to start having those discussions.”

One of the most notable part of those discussions will be sending private astronauts to the ISS.

Under NASA’s new policy, the station will be able to accommodate two missions a year beginning as soon as 2020 carrying up to a dozen private astronauts to the space station for up to 30 days.

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Private companies will be responsible for the cost and training involved in the missions and NASA will provide the destination.

The private astronauts missions will use the spacecraft developed by SpaceX and Boeing under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program to get to space, which NASA chief financial officer Jeff DeWit estimates will bring down the cost per-seat on those mission from about $80 million currently to about $58 million.

The companies booking those trips also will have to pay NASA for the ISS stay, including food and lodging.

“It will be roughly about $35,000 a night per astronaut,” DeWit said, “but it won’t come with any Hilton or Marriott points.”

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