NASA to open International Space Station to private astronauts

At a press conference on Friday, NASA announced new opportunities for the private sector on the International Space Station and in low-Earth orbit.

“We’re hear because the International Space Station is now open for business,” Stephanie Schierholz, NASA spokesperson, said during opening remarks at the Nasdaq stock exchange.

In addition to making the facilities on the International Space Station available to private companies for research, marketing and other potential revenue-generating activities, NASA will allow private astronauts to travel to and stay aboard ISS.

NASA anticipates making the space station available to two private missions per year, which means ISS could host as many as a dozen private astronauts per year.

Though NASA estimates the Commercial Crew Program and the development of new crew-carrying spacecraft by Boeing and SpaceX will bring down the cost of travel. Getting private astronauts to and from the space station will remain a large financial hurdle.

Once on the space station, whoever is paying the bills for the private mission will have to pay NASA for food, water, shelter and safety.

“The costs average out to about $35,000 per night,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer.

Unfortunately, the stay won’t come with any Hilton or Marriott points, DeWit joked.

According to NASA, the first private astronaut missions could blast-off as early as 2020.

During Friday’s press conference, NASA said it would also dedicate 5 percent of its resources to host the activities of private companies, including the research into and testing of new products. As part of its new policy directive, NASA will also open up the space station to possible marketing and advertising activities.

None of the changes or new commercial opportunities announced Friday required legislative changes, according to Robyn Gatens, deputy director of International Space Station.

Gatens detailed a five part plan for encouraging commercial activities and expanding the private marketplace in low-Earth orbit. The plan is part of NASA’s oft-stated goal to become one of many users, or customers, in the low-Earth orbit economy.

“We’re reaching out to the private sector to see if you can push the economic frontier into space,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.

In addition to opening up ISS and its resources to private companies and astronauts — the first two parts of the five-part plan — NASA will open up the space station’s Node 2 Harmony module to commercial activities, the first step in the development of a commercial destination.

NASA’s plan also calls for the space agency to continue studying the potential for commercial activities related to space manufacturing and regenerative medicine. The fifth part of the plan calls for NASA to lay out what exactly needs to happen to enable long-term commercial operations in long-term orbit.

Eventually, NASA wants to see ISS replaced by a privately run space station. In other words, in the future, NASA wants to be the buyer of low-Earth orbit services, not the seller.

In addition to maintaining a sustainable commercial presence in low-Earth orbit, the agency expects commercial entities to play a central role in establishing a sustainable human presence on the moon.

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