The International Space Station is an integrated hub that permits international governments to send astronauts to outer space for the sake of conducting space-oriented science, and apart from a small number of exceptions in the past couple of decades, the vast majority of the Earth-orbiting space lab’s visitors have been official space agency astronauts. But it won’t always be that way.
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Just this week, NASA took to the NASDAQ Stock Exchange in New York to announce that it would soon officially privatize specific aspects of the International Space Station to the commercial sector, a move that will let companies ferry individuals there such that they can conduct for-profit endeavors.
"NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we've never done before," explained Jeff DeWitt, the chief financial officer at NASA.
NASA’s idea of privatizing the International Space Station isn’t new, but with government funding set to expire shortly, it seems like a pretty good time to start advertising the idea.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those privatized International Space Station visits won’t be free – nor will they be affordable to the average Joe. Any company that wishes to sponsor a privatized visit will pay more than $50 million to a commercial space company such as Boeing or SpaceX for a rocket launch, and then pay NASA an additional $35,000 per night for the use of valuable resources (food, water, oxygen, etc.).
After the commercial space sector develops and NASA sees a financial return on its investment, the space agency hopes to step away as the landlord of its space modules and behave more like a tenant. With Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft nearing readiness for space tourism, both could companies could conduct privatized International Space Station launches by 2020.
NASA’s International Space Station-centric funding is set to expire by 2024, and so privatizing the Earth-orbiting space lab ensures that nothing goes to waste. More importantly, it allows NASA to walk away and spearhead more ambitious goals, such as developing the lunar Gateway and moving related space science projects to deep space-oriented outposts.
It should be interesting to see what becomes of these changes, especially given the private sector’s apparent interest in using the International Space Station as a place for manufacturing products in a microgravitational environment. With a little luck, perhaps this is just what the commercial space industry needs to take off (no pun intended).