The space agency has balked at commercial ventures in the past, but the cost of operating the space station, which is one of the agency’s greatest expenses, currently runs $3 billion to $4 billion a year, or more than $8 million a day. NASA leadership has made it clear that the agency wants to eventually transition control of the space station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector.
“What this is, is an investment in the future for demand for low-Earth platforms” said Mike Read, the manager of Commercial Space Utilization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told VOA News. “What we want to do is leverage the station and try to enable others to turn a business model … while we have the infrastructure of the space station.”
By handing control of the space station over to commercial ventures, NASA could have more money to pursue more ambitious missions, such as building a new space station around the moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface.
In late 2018, the agency selected 12 companies to study the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate demand for human space flight. (Low-Earth orbit means altitudes below 2,000 km or 1,240 miles.) This group brainstormed ways companies could turn a profit at the space station, and the members decided that allowing corporations to build and market their products using space station resources would help ignite the economy NASA is seeking to build on.
But getting to space is not cheap.
Private astronaut missions will be limited to two flights per year, or about 12 astronauts per year, and come at a significant cost. The cost of travel and accommodations will have to be picked up by the private sector.
As of now, the only ways to get to the space station are spacecraft developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, so “whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer.
NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts.
Apart from the cost of getting there, companies hoping to work on the space station will have to pay to stay there: One night’s stay would be about $35,000 for one person, DeWit said.
“It’s now up to you to use your creativity — your ingenuity — and figure out how you can generate potential revenue,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration.
“This is the beginning of us actively starting open dialogue with the industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities, where revenue can be generated from private sector companies. … This is going to be a growing and learning experience for both [sides].”
But NASA’s Read points out a key element to this new venture: “We are a government bureaucracy that is trying to enable development of a new economy. That’s pretty different,” he said.