Today, NASA executives announced that the space agency will open up parts of the International Space Station to more commercial opportunities, allowing companies unprecedented use of the space station’s facilities, including filming commercials or movies against the backdrop of space. NASA is also calling on the private space industry to send in ideas for habitats and modules that can be attached to the space station semi-permanently.
A new interim directive from NASA allows private companies to buy time and space on the ISS for producing, marketing, or testing their products. It also allows those companies to use resources on the ISS for commercial purposes, even making use of NASA astronauts’ time and expertise (but not their likeness). If companies want, they can even send their own astronauts to the ISS, starting as early as 2020, but all of these activities come with a hefty price tag.
It’s a significant turn for NASA, which has long been antagonistic toward commercializing the ISS. Russia is more open to ads and branding on the ISS (as it was with the Mir space station) and has sent tourists to the ISS before. But NASA has strictly prohibited the use of its side of the International Space Station for commercial purposes. Up until now, any company wishing to send products to the ISS had to show that there was some educational component to the undertaking or that it revolved around some kind of technology demonstration. No purely commercial projects are allowed to be sent to the ISS, and NASA astronauts are even prohibited from working on experiments if there’s a possibility that the research will be used to make a profit.
In August, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine formed a committee to look into ways of opening up the space agency to commercialization, arguing that doing so could provide new sources of revenue and name recognition for NASA. “Is it possible for NASA to offset some of its costs by selling the naming rights to a spacecraft or the naming rights to its rockets?” Bridenstine said to a group of advisers for NASA in August. “I’m telling you there is interest in that right now. The question is: is it possible? And the answer is I don’t know, but we need somebody to give us advice on whether or not it is.”
NASA leadership has made it clear that the space agency wants to eventually transition control of the International Space Station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector someday. It costs NASA $3 to $4 billion a year to operate the ISS, and by handing over control of the station, NASA could have more money to pursue much more ambitious missions, like the agency’s goals of building a new space station around the Moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface. In 2018, the president’s budget request called on ending direct funding for the ISS by 2025 and ceding operations of the orbiting lab to private companies. The White House is no longer pursuing that deadline of 2025 due to pushback from lawmakers, but NASA is still looking to jump-start the private space industry’s takeover of low Earth orbit.
To help achieve this, NASA commissioned 12 companies to study ways of establishing a heavy commercial presence in this region of space. Each company detailed ideas for new private space habitats that could either be attached to the ISS or fly free in low Earth orbit. Such platforms could serve as “destinations” for research and even private visitors, according to NASA, generating revenue and opening up entirely new business models. NASA did admit that the barrier to entry is still high since transporting people and cargo to space is quite expensive. But the space agency is still moving forward with commercialization based on what these studies found.
“You see, the space agency is looking at probably another 10 years of the ISS being in orbit, and saying, ‘Okay, how do we move forward?’” Jeff Manber, the CEO of NanoRacks, which coordinates shipments and experiments on the ISS, tells The Verge. “Let’s put our toes in the water on purely commercial projects. Let’s begin to allow tourism. And let’s begin to have the first commercial platforms supported by NASA. And so it’s a very important step forward. This is the beginning of a new chapter.”
Using the space station will come with some restrictions. NASA is allocating 5 percent of its resources on the station for these commercial activities. Only 175 kilograms per year in commercial cargo can be sent to the ISS, and NASA crew will only dedicate 90 hours a year to commercial activities. NASA has also released a list of approved commercial activities that the agency will allow on board. Private astronaut missions to the ISS are limited to two flights a year, and the astronauts will only be able to stay for 30 days. Right now, the only viable option for crew getting to the ISS is via new spacecraft being developed by SpaceX and Boeing for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which still haven’t flown people yet.
Additionally, using the space station’s facilities will be incredibly expensive. It’ll cost $11,250 per astronaut per day to use the life support systems and toilet and $22,500 per day for all necessary crew supplies, like food, air, medical supplies, and more. Even power will cost $42 per kilowatt-hour.
Some companies might want to go even bigger and send their own module up to the International Space Station. If they do, NASA has made sure that they will have an available docking port. The agency is making the port on the station’s Harmony module available for a commercial habitat to attach to for a limited period of time. Habitats that dock to this port will have access to the station’s utilities, and astronauts could potentially use the module during their stay in space. NASA will soon ask for proposals of habitats that can be attached to Harmony and will make final selections by the end of the fiscal year, according to the space agency.