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NASA says you’re welcome aboard the Space Station – for $58 million

NASA says you’re welcome aboard the Space Station – for $58 million
The International Space Station in orbit. (NASA)

NASA laid out a plan Friday to open the International Space Station to expanded commercial activities, including space tourism.

It won’t be cheap. NASA estimated a trip would cost a private astronaut $58 million, with additional estimated $35,000 charges for each day spent on the space station.

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Two paying space tourists could begin visits of up to 30 days as soon as 2020, NASA officials said at a news conference Friday in New York.

The move could help NASA raise money as it looks to focus its resources beyond low-Earth orbit — where the space station is located — and toward its plan to send U.S. astronauts to the moon by 2024. Revenue generated by a larger commercial presence might offset NASA’s cost to operate and support the space station, which totals about $3 billion to $4 billion each year, according to a NASA Office of Inspector General report. That, in turn, could shift funds toward the moon mission, NASA Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWit said during the news conference.

For almost two decades since it was first occupied in 2000, the International Space Station has served as a continuously occupied hub for scientific and commercial research and development. Although expanded commercialization has been discussed for years, such a plan represents a change in the program’s status quo, said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst at market research firm Teal Group.

“It’s no longer just for science and research,” he said. “You’re allowing ventures to come in and use that space for profit, for making money. That’s not a small thing.”

Companies that want to conduct commercial or marketing work on the space station must meet one of at least three requirements — that the work requires the “unique microgravity environment” aboard for production of some commercial application, that it is connected to a NASA mission, or that it supports the development of a “sustainable” economy in low-Earth orbit, according to NASA.

In return, NASA said it would allocate about 5% of its resources on the station to accommodate commercial activities. Interested companies will be reviewed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Several industries have already dabbled in research aboard the space station. Several years ago, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly conducted an experiment on the station to investigate how medicine tablets dissolve. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Made in Space has made optical-fiber cables on the station, taking advantage of microgravity to help prevent manufacturing flaws.

NASA has increasingly relied on commercial companies to handle tasks the agency used to take the lead on. Hawthorne-based SpaceX and Northrop Grumman Corp. currently transport supplies for NASA to the space station, and SpaceX and Boeing Co. are in the latter stages of testing and developing spacecraft that will take NASA astronauts there.

Those vehicles can now also be used for the twice-yearly private astronaut missions. In addition to the $58-million seat cost, tourists will be charged $11,250 per day for use of the station’s life support system and toilet; crew supplies, including food, air and medical supplies, would cost $22,500 per day. Smaller fees include use of power and data.

Allowing paying tourists to visit the space station is not unprecedented — the Russian space agency has transported a handful of private astronauts over the years through a company called Space Adventures. NASA’s move into this market is “about 20 years too late,” said Laura Forczyk, owner of space consulting firm Astralytical.

“Russia embraced the concept of flying private astronauts because they needed the money,” she said. “Now NASA’s finding itself in a similar situation where it needs to free up money … to focus on [the lunar] gateway and Artemis lunar plans, and at least at this point, it’s not getting much of an increase from Congress.”

NASA said it had briefed its international partners — space agencies from Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada — on the plan and that all resources involved would come from the U.S. agency’s allocation.

Hovering over NASA’s plan is the question of how long the space station will be habitable. NASA originally expected its service life to end in 2015, but then extended that several times. Its final run is now scheduled for 2024. The agency is considering another extension to 2028, according to a statement last year by NASA’s inspector general before a Senate subcommittee.

“Eventually, the space station we have … will wear out,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. “The physical hardware won’t be able to be maintained. It’ll become cost-prohibitive for us to keep it operating.”

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The idea here is to “start early” and determine whether there are private-sector space stations that could meet the agency’s future needs, he said. NASA officials said there was no set date for a transition from a NASA-operated space station and a privately owned one.

“This is not going to be, ‘It’s NASA today, [and] all the commercial sector tomorrow,” Gerstenmaier said. “This is going to be a nice transition period between us.”

But the looming specter of the station’s eventual end could make companies less interested in commercial opportunities.

“Any company that is wanting to invest in doing something commercial on the station isn’t going to do it thinking, ‘We can only do it for a couple of years,’” said Caceres, the Teal Group analyst. “Until we know what the future of the space station is long-term, I have a hard time believing any company would want to invest their time and money in doing it.”

NASA officials said it was too early to project how much revenue the agency could get from commercialization.

“This is not going to be a profit-making venture for NASA at all,” DeWit said. “But it will help defray expenses.”

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