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NASA plans to open the International Space Station for business

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NASA has announced a plan to start commercializing the International Space Station. The plan will eventually lead to the development of commercial space stations that will take over low Earth orbit operations once the ISS is decommissioned. That will happen in 2028 or 2030, depending on what Congress decides.

The initiative includes a new commercial use policy allowing for manufacturing and marketing on the station, according to Space News.

“Those activities must fall into one of three categories,” Robyn Gatens told Space News, deputy director of the ISS. The required categories include using microgravity, stimulating the LEO economy and aligning with NASA’s mission.

Space News also noted that commercial crews will be able to transport private astronauts, initially limited to two astronauts a year for a maximum of 30 days. Each day of these trips to the station will cost $35,000, for NASA resources and flight arrangements. 

NASA will also provide a docking port for a commercial module that could serve everything to a private research lab to a manufacturing facility. The space agency will also conduct studies on the potential markets for space-manufactured products and on barriers to entry into those markets.

By commercializing part of the ISS, NASA hopes to start to decrease the cost of maintaining the giant, orbiting laboratory. Eventually, commercial companies such as Bigelow and Nanoracks will build free-flying mini-space stations that will co-orbit with the ISS.

When the space station ends its useful operational life, the space agency hopes to have jump-started a space-based industrial sector, with a swarm of commercial space stations replacing the ISS. NASA would rent space on one or more of these space stations to continue space-based research while concentrating on deep space exploration.

The idea of commercial space stations is not new. Back in the early 1980s, a company called Space Industries proposed to build an Industrial Space Facility that would co-orbit what was then called Space Station Freedom and would be serviced by the space shuttle. However, the ISF turned out to be an idea that was ahead of its time.

The Industrial Space Facility was stymied by the unexpected high cost of operating the space shuttle. Also, an odd coalition of business interests and anti-NASA politicians, including the late William Proxmire, floated a plan to replace the space station project with the ISF. The space agency shifted from intrigued support to implacable opposition. The Challenger accident did not help matters, Eventually Congress refused to approve NASA participation in the project, and therefore it became stillborn.

Thirty years later, the climate for a space-based industrial sector seems to be much brighter. Thanks to the Commercial Crew program, the cost of traveling to low Earth orbit is about to plunge, with private flights by SpaceX and Boeing due to start shortly. Thanks in part to almost a decade’s worth of experiments on the ISS, companies have a better handle on what sort of products could be manufactured in space that could be sold on Earth. Space tourism will prove to be an excellent market, proven by the flights of private space travelers by Space Adventures in partnership with Russia.

The fact that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine studied business and economics at Rice University and attended the Cornell Business School has also likely contributed to the space agency’s renewed interest in space commercialization. With commercial companies participating in the Artemis return-to-the-moon program, the private sector has become less a servant of NASA and more like a full partner. Eventually, the private sector will no longer depend on help from the government and will make its own profits on the high frontier. Then it can be said that the space age has truly begun.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”

Tags Jim Bridenstine Mark R. Whittington NASA Space Technology

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