NASA finally gets down to the business of commercializing space station operations

AndroidTechNews.Com – As a joke, NASA spacewalker Dale Gardner holds up a “For Sale” sign during a shuttle mission in 1984, during a time when the space shuttle fleet took on commercial satellite servicing tasks. (NASA Photo)

NASA today laid out its initial batch of ground rules for future commercial activities on the International Space Station, including provisions for having private-sector astronauts spend up to 30 days in orbit.

But it doesn’t sound as if those private astronauts will be spending all their time just looking out the window: The ventures that organize the space trips will have to file a work plan explaining the proposed mission and what orbital resources will be required. And the ventures will have to reimburse NASA for the use of those resources to the tune of $35,000 or so per day, on top of a launch cost likely to exceed $50 million.

NASA chief financial officer Jeff DeWit said the new policies, including some yet to be announced, should mark a paradigm shift for the space agency as it focuses on moving beyond Earth orbit and putting astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024. NASA’s new directive clears the space agency to participate in marketing and manufacturing activities, for a price.

“This will open space to new companies to unleash American corporate innovation and ingenuity in new markets, all driving a lower cost to U.S. taxpayers,” he said.

A flurry of documents outlines a short- to long-term plan for transitioning to a situation where NASA is one of many customers for commercial ventures, operating on the International Space Station and also potentially on free-flying orbital outposts that are yet to be built.

Further documents, particularly on the longer-term plans, are to be released in a week. It will take months longer to work out the details for commercial activities and get bids. And even after that, the policies are likely to be fine-tuned.

“Transitions take a long time,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. “This is the very beginning. … It’s showing that NASA is willing to let go.”

NASA will still be barred from competing directly with the private sector, and there are some roles that NASA’s own astronauts won’t be allowed to take on, said Robyn Gatens, the space agency’s deputy director for the International Space Station. For example, government astronauts will be limited to “behind the camera” roles for commercial in-space productions, she said.

However, private astronauts — perhaps including actors and filmmakers — could theoretically take the leading roles in space shows.

Private-sector spacefliers have been visiting the space station since 2001, as riders on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft. But the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011 tightened up the supply of open seats and shut down that market.

The market is in for a revival once the commercial space taxis being built by Boeing and SpaceX enter service, as early as this year. DeWit said that NASA expects to pay those companies around $58 million per seat for rides to and from the space station. The fee for private astronauts would be comparable, he said.

In addition, the ventures organizing private-astronaut flights would have to reimburse NASA for services such as life support, food, water and power. Currently, that cost amounts to roughly $35,000 a night, DeWit said, “but it won’t come with any Hilton or Marriott reward points.”

Up to two private-astronaut missions will be allowed per year, with each mission lasting up to 30 days. Multiple astronauts could fly on each mission, which means up to a dozen astronauts could get turns in orbit over the course of a year, Gatens said.

NASA is making up to 5 percent of its resources available on a reimbursable basis for commercial activities, including 90 hours of crew time and 175 kilograms (386 pounds) of cargo launch capability per year. But the amount of resources provided to any one venture will be limited. For example, the per-company limit for cargo launch is 50 kilograms (110 pounds).

Every proposal will have to demonstrate that it fits one of NASA’s conditions for the commercialization program — that is, that it furthers the objectives of a NASA mission, or has a unique requirement for zero-gravity conditions, or helps build a commercial market in space.

NASA said the forward docking port of the space station’s Harmony node would be made available for commercial ventures that wanted to hook up their own space module for a limited time, presumably to host private astronauts or research facilities.

The motivation behind the commercialization campaign is to free up resources for NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to put astronauts on the lunar surface by the end of 2024, and for follow-up missions to Mars and other destinations beyond Earth orbit.

Last year, the White House said it wanted to end direct funding of International Space Station operations by 2025. Today, DeWit acknowledged that several dates for getting to that point were being debated, in part due to pushback from Congress. But he told GeekWire that “any of those dates starts with this right now.”

Once the transition is made, NASA would shift from being the operator of the International Space Station’s U.S. segment to being a customer.

So if NASA becomes a customer, who would be the vendor? Gatens referred to the dozens of companies that are already using the space station for commercial activities, including about 20 representatives who gathered with NASA officials for today’s announcement.

“Someone in this room could be the vendor,” she said.

Update for 4:10 p.m. PT June 7: SpaceX and Boeing say they’re ready to take private astronauts to the space station.

Here’s an emailed statement from SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell: “SpaceX was founded with the goal of helping humanity become a spacefaring civilization. We are looking forward to work with NASA and other commercial partners as we open up low Earth orbit to an exciting new chapter of human exploration.”

Boeing spokesman Josh Barrett told GeekWire that his company is already having “interesting conversations with a lot of potential customers” who would ride on Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner space taxi, alongside NASA-funded professional astronauts heading for the space station. Boeing test pilot Chris Ferguson, a former NASA space shuttle commander, will set the precedent for private-astronaut flights during the Starliner’s first crewed trip to the station.

Such “fifth-seat” flights would be similar to the “third-seat” flights that Virginia-based Space Adventures has arranged in the past on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. In an emailed statement, Space Adventures’ president, Tom Shelley, had this to say about today’s developments:

“Congratulations to NASA for announcing plans for space tourism to the U.S. segment of the space station. Space tourism actually began 18 years ago. On April 25, 2001 NASA approved Space Adventures’ first space tourist to visit the ISS, Dennis Tito, who launched just three days later (just in time).

“After his historic flight, NASA and all ISS partners approved the rest of Space Adventures’ clients according to ISS MCOP principles. These principles have been continuously in effect since Nov. 1, 2001.

“We’re pleased to see NASA’s announcement today, and applaud NASA’s efforts in consulting industry to inform their strategy and policy. Space Adventures is delighted to have been a key contributor to NASA in that process.

“Space Adventures is currently able to arrange flights to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, or on the Boeing CST-100 Starliner.”

For what it’s worth, Space Adventures already has an agreement with Russia’s space agency to fly two private astronauts in late 2021.

Nevada-based Bigelow Space Operations is making its own plans with SpaceX to send private astronauts to the space station, as evidenced by this tweet:

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