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NASA is opening the International Space Station to businesses and private citizens

The International Space Station is open for business.

Picture it: A few years down the road, the station may no longer be completely under NASA’s purview, but instead run by a myriad of Earth-based businesses that test their technologies and manufacture things in space, all while sending their private astronauts — regular citizens like you and me, but with deep pockets — for stays on the orbiting laboratory.

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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 limiting commercial activity on the station to only science experiments.

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.

From left to right, NASA Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWit, ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier speak during a press conference to address the opening of the International Space Station to expanded commercial activities, at the Nasdaq MarketSite, June 7, 2019 in New York City.
From left to right, NASA Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWit, ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens and NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier speak during a press conference to address the opening of the International Space Station to expanded commercial activities, at the Nasdaq MarketSite, June 7, 2019 in New York City. (Drew Angerer/Getty)

“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.”

Most notably, NASA is now open to sending private citizens to the ISS. Under the space agency’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 trips of up to 30 days, said Robyn Gatens, deputy director of International Space Station.

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

The private astronaut 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 $50 million.

The companies booking those trips will also 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.”

In all, the new regulations introduce a five-part program that include the private astronaut provision, as well as a set of other new activities that commercial businesses can apply to participate in.

The other components include:

  • Supporting more commercial activity, including manufacture and production on the station. NASA is working with 11 companies to install 14 commercial facilities on the station for that purpose and on Friday released its prices for businesses that want to use ISS facilities (trash disposal is $3,000 per kilogram, for instance). The agency is allocating 5% of its crew resources and cargo capability to commercial purposes, as well. To work on station, a company must prove that it needs a microgravity environment for its product or service, that its activities have a connection to NASA’s mission or that they support the development of a low-Earth orbit economy.
  • Plans to purchase “free-flying” habitats in low-Earth orbit. NASA is envisioning a future where companies can go to either the space station or another destination on orbit to meet their needs. For now, the ISS is making one port available for a commercial module, but plans to add the free-flying destinations at a later date.
  • Stimulating demand by adding two more focus areas for research that address commercial concepts, such as in-space manufacturing, regenerative medicine, bioengineering or other areas with “financially self-sustaining” demand in low-Earth orbit. The agency is also soliciting studies that will help it better understand barriers to new companies that want to enter the market in space.
  • Quantifying NASA’s future intentions to purchase commercial services, giving companies a sense of the type and quantity of services the agency plans to make use of to help them plan their proposals.

Want more space news? Follow Go For Launch on Facebook. Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 407-420-5660; Twitter @ChabeliH

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