NASA Embraces Space Tourism, More Commercial Activities on ISS

NASA Embraces Space Tourism, More Commercial Activities on ISS

NASA is opening the International Space Station (ISS) doors to increased commercial activity, including space tourism.  A number of tourists have visited the ISS already, but always under Russian sponsorship.  Now NASA is welcoming them too, and has issued a price list for how much they will have to pay for food, life support, communications and other necessities.  Transportation is not included. That will have to be arranged separately with SpaceX or Boeing, the companies building U.S. commercial crew space transportation systems that NASA hopes will be operational next year.  That is just one aspect of commercial activities NASA hopes to catalyze with its new policy.

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency.  Crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules have lived aboard the ISS since November 2000.  In the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, the U.S. segment was declared a “national laboratory” with the goal of attracting non-NASA researchers to use the scientific facilities with the hope that commercial products would ensue.  In 2011, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) was established to manage the U.S. national lab aspects of the ISS.  CASIS recently rebranded itself as the “ISS National Lab.”

Those activities will continue under the new ISS commercial policy announced on Friday, but NASA wants to expand commercial utilization of ISS beyond that and is making an additional 5 percent of its resources available to the commercial sector.  The goal is stimulating sufficient commercial demand for space station facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) that companies will build their own space stations and NASA can purchase services from them instead of operating ISS.

The timing for that transition from a government-operated facility to private sector facilities is to be determined.  NASA recently released summaries of 12 studies it solicited last year that generally concluded NASA would have to be the main customer — the anchor tenant — for the business case to work.  NASA does not want to be an anchor tenant, just one of many customers.

Thus NASA now is trying to stimulate commercial activity in LEO to improve future business models.  It took five actions:

  • established a commercial use and pricing policy for the ISS that will enable companies to purchase ISS resources for commercial activities;
  • announced the intent to allow companies to fly private astronauts to the ISS with the first mission as early as 2020;
  • initiated a process for developing commercial LEO destinations, including allowing companies to dock one their modules at one of the ISS docking ports (Node 2 Forward Port) followed by release of a solicitation for a free flying platform before the end of 2019;
  • laid out a plan to pursue opportunities to stimulate demand; and
  • updated a white paper that quantifies NASA’s own long-term needs in LEO.

The space tourism angle has generated a lot of attention.  The first space tourist aboard ISS was American Dennis Tito who paid Russia a reported $20 million for a one-week visit in 2001.  NASA opposed the idea initially, but eventually acquiesced.  Russia has flown six additional individuals as tourists since then (one made two flights). It suspended its tourist flights once the U.S. space shuttle program ended and NASA needed to use those seats (NASA pays Russia about $80 million per seat).  They are now resuming, with the flight of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) astronaut scheduled for later this year.

NASA has been a reluctant participant in Russia’s tourist flights in the past, but its attitude is changing now that SpaceX and Boeing are getting ready to fly their commercial crew systems, Crew Dragon and  Starliner.  Space tourism is a potential revenue stream for them.

NASA Deputy ISS Program Director Robyn Gatens said at a press conference at NASDAQ on Friday that NASA will allow two flights a year for space tourists, or “private astronauts.”  Each flight could carry multiple people, for a total of “a dozen or so” tourists per year depending on how many tickets the companies want to sell, she said.

How much a ticket will cost is unknown since the trip to and from ISS will be provided by SpaceX and Boeing and they have not announced their prices yet.  NASA CFO Jeff DeWit said NASA will be paying the companies about $58 million per seat on average. The companies may not ask tourists to pay the same amount, however.

On top of the transportation costs, the tourists will have to reimburse NASA for use of its ISS resources.  NASA’s pricing policy chart shows it will be about $35,000 per night per person.

Source: NASA

DeWit said NASA will “reevaluate” the pricing every six months.

The video of NASA’s June 7 press conference is available on YouTube. NASA has information on a number of its websites about the new policy and existing policies that remain in effect:

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