The space agency wants to create a sustainable economy in low Earth orbit.
On Thursday morning, NASA held a press conference to announce that the International Space Station is now open for business. Previously, commercial organizations have only been able to use the ISS for research purposes; now NASA is open to letting them make a profit in low Earth orbit (LEO). “We’re marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before,” said NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Jeff DeWitt earlier today.
For starters, the space agency issued a new directive that allows commercial manufacturing and production to occur on the ISS, as well as marketing activities. It’s not quite “anything goes,” though—approved activities have to have a link to NASA’s mission, stimulate the development of a LEO economy, or actually require a zero-G environment. NASA has published a price list for the ISS, and it’s setting aside five percent of the station’s annual resources (including astronaut time and cargo mass) for commercial use.
Be prepared to pay to reach LEO. The cheapest cargo option is $3,000/kg to get it there, then an additional $3,000/kg to dispose of it in the trash. If you want it back again, that’ll be a $6,000/kg return fee, although round trip prices per kg are more expensive if you need power or life support on the way home.
In addition to manufacturing and production, NASA set pricing for space tourists—it’s calling them private astronaut missions—aboard the ISS, too. Regenerative life support and toilet access? That’s a snip at $11,250 per crew day. The more expensive “Crew Supplies” option—$22,500—sounds more hospitable, including as it does “food, air, crew provisions, supplies, medical kit, [and] exercise equipment.” NASA says it will support up to two short-duration private missions to the ISS each year, and those missions will travel on a US launch vehicle developed under the Commercial Crew program.
A commercial module on the ISS
NASA also wants industry to use the ISS to develop new low Earth orbit habitats, and the organization is making the forward docking port on the station’s Harmony module available to private industry. In 2017, we reported that NASA was allowing a private airlock to be added to a different module, Tranquility. However, that one was solely for cargo use.
Other parts of NASA’s plan include soliciting studies and proposals for new commercial activities in LEO. In particular, the agency wants there to be sustainable demand for commercial activities in space, something that a 2018 report from NASA’s inspector general found was currently non-existent. If you have thoughts about the topic—and I know from previous discussion threads there is plenty of smart thinking around here when it comes to the topic—NASA is open to feedback.