Up to two private astronauts could join professional crews on the International Space Station each year under a set of expanded commerce activities slated to begin as soon as 2020.
NASA, under a mandate from the Trump administration to land humans on the moon again by 2024, plans to use increased revenues from private companies on the ISS to offset the cost of going back to the moon, officials said in a livestreamed announcement at Nasdaq in New York City.
These astronauts would fly to the space station aboard SpaceX Crew Dragon or Boeing CST-100 spacecraft, which are commercial crew vehicles that are yet untested with astronauts in space. Both companies are expected to run human test flights later this year, NASA confirmed in the press conference.
The private astronauts would spend up to 30 days on board the orbiting complex, with the companies paying for costs such as life support, water and seats for launch (estimated to be roughly $38 million per seat, although Boeing and SpaceX would determine the exact pricing, NASA said.) More details about the solicitation are available on this NASA website.
Sending non-space agency astronauts to orbit is not a new idea; several private citizens flew as payload specialists on the space shuttle in the early 1980s, and a few private space tourists paid tens of millions of dollars to the Russian space agency to fly on the Mir space station and ISS in the 1990s and 2000s.
NASA is once again opening up slots for private astronauts to help industry with the future of space once the ISS completes its orbital lifetime. The current agreement between the partners calls for ISS operations until 2024, although some industry insiders have speculated an extension to 2028 is possible.
The space station, whose first pieces launched in 1998, is aging and NASA expects the costs of repairs eventually will become prohibitive, said Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in the press conference. The hope is that one day, private industry would offer its own space station for possible NASA use, but that likely depends on giving commercial companies increased opportunities on the ISS first, Gerstenmaier said. That will build their experience in space. “The vision here is to start early,” he said.
To be sure, U.S. commercial activities are already taking place on the ISS through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages commercial experiments through the U.S. National Laboratory under a 10-year agreement signed with NASA in 2011. But the activities include restrictions on items such as marketing and for-profit work, and focus mostly on research. Other parts of the new ISS vision would open up commercial activities to a greater degree.
“A new NASA directive will enable commercial manufacturing and production and allow both NASA and private astronauts to conduct new commercial activities aboard the orbiting laboratory,” NASA said in a statement. “The directive also sets prices for industry use of U.S. government resources on the space station for commercial and marketing activities.”
NASA plans to support expanded activities through 5% of the agency’s annual allocation of crew resources and cargo capability (meaning 90 hours of crew time and 385 pounds of cargo launch capability.) This will be spread fairly through several companies, the agency added.
Besides private astronauts and expanded commercial activities, NASA will also open one space station port (on the Harmony node) for industry to support a commercial module, with a solicitation opening June 14. Awards for this port will be selected at the end of the fiscal year. Each company will get to use this node for a finite period, NASA said.
The multi-pronged commercial announcement also includes opportunities for industry for comment, and to review a NASA forecast on commercial demand in future on the space station. More details on these matters is available on NASA’s website.