NASA unveils plans to commercialize low Earth orbit


The International Space Station. Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

NASA unveiled an ambitious program Friday to commercialize low-Earth orbit, making way for product development and even advertising aboard the International Space Station, month-long visits by company astronauts starting as early as next year and use of a station docking port for privately financed research-and-development modules.

NASA’s five-part commercialization blueprint also calls for the agency to facilitate development of technology needed for free-flying research labs NASA could rent space aboard in the future and work to “stimulate sustainable demand” for commercial R & D in a variety of fields ranging from in-space manufacturing to biomedicine.

Revenue from commercial use of the International Space Station will help offset on-going operational costs, freeing up resources for NASA’s accelerated Artemis program, which is aimed at sending astronauts back to the surface of the moon in just five years.

“We’re reaching out to the private sector to see if you can push the economic frontier into space,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA director of space operations. “This is a shift for NASA that will be beneficial for the American economy and for the American citizens.

“The commercialization of low-Earth orbit will enable NASA to focus resources to land the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024 as the first phase in creating a sustainable lunar presence and preparing for missions to Mars.”

Non-NASA private-sector astronauts, up to perhaps a dozen a year if demand is high enough, will be able to hitch rides to the station aboard Boeing or SpaceX commercial crew spacecraft now under development and spend up to 30 days at a time aboard the station. Two such launches could be accommodated per year.

NASA plans to throw in 90 hours of full-time agency astronaut crew time for commercial operations and underwrite delivery of up to 385 pounds of cargo per mission. The agency will even consider letting NASA astronauts participate in commercial marketing, at least in support roles “behind the camera.”

NASA officials did not address whether the program might allow the launch of any “space tourists” like the eight launched by the Russians between 2001 and 2009.

And in any case, access to the station will not come cheap. While the figures are subject to change, NASA initially plans to charge $11,250 per commercial crew member per day for life support and bathroom privileges and another $22,500 per day for crew supples, including air and water. Data downlink? $50 per gigabyte.

The total cost would be about $35,000 per day, or just over $1 million per crew member for a 30-day visit. And those prices do not include transportation to and from the station.

The Russians charge NASA more than $80 million for a seat aboard a Soyuz ferry ship, but NASA expects seats aboard Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft to cost the agency in the neighborhood of $58 million each. How much Boeing and SpaceX might charge private-sector astronauts is not yet known.

“We’re going to re-evaluate the pricing every six months,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer, said of the agency’s charges. “If a private astronaut is on station, they’ll have to pay us while they’re there for the life support, the food, the water, things of that nature.”

NASA Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWit gives remarks during a briefing where NASA announced the agency’s five-part plan to open the International Space Station to expanded commercial and marketing activities and private astronaut missions to the station and enable additional commercial destinations in low Earth orbit. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA’s cost per seat is going down compared to rides aboard the Russian Soyuz and “I would expect the cost to be in that range” — around $58 million — for private astronauts, DeWit said.

“The two companies right now that can do it are Boeing and SpaceX,” he added. “And so, (private astronauts would) have to contract with them and whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them. But when they get to station, there will be a cost. It will be roughly about $35,000 a night per astronaut.

“But it won’t come with any Hilton or Marriott points,” he joked.

And not just anyone can book a flight. NASA documents say commercial and marketing activity aboard the space station must:

  • Require a microgravity environment for manufacturing, production or development of a product or service
  • Have a “connection” to NASA’s mission, that is, space exploration
  • Support development of “a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy”

NASA astronauts “will be able to conduct coordinated, scheduled and reimbursable commercial and marketing activities consistent with government ethics requirements aboard the station,” the agency said in a release.

Gerstenmaier said NASA will expect Boeing and SpaceX to handle all the arrangements for visits by commercial astronauts.

“We’re looking to the private sector to do the training, to do the transportation, to work out the accommodations, to be the interface between the individuals that want to fly the private astronauts and us,” Gerstenmaier said. “So we expect the private sector companies to do all that.”

NASA and its international partners — Russia, the European Space Agency, Canada and Japan — have approved operating the space station through 2024. NASA has carried out engineering studies showing the lab can be safely operated through at least 2028, but the Trump administration earlier indicated it wants to end direct government funding for station operations by the 2025 timeframe.

DeWit said the 2025 date is one of several proposals under consideration by lawmakers and “right now, there’s no real firm date” for a transition to commercial operations.

“But any of those dates starts with this right now, which is inviting our commercial partners to come aboard,” DeWit said. “This is the first step. In a year or two, we can have a much clearer picture of when a transition could happen.”