NASA is opening up its section of the International Space Station (ISS) for leasing to private astronauts and commercial companies. Starting as soon as next year, any American who can afford the expected multimillion-dollar price tag will be welcome to schedule a private “mission” lasting no more than 30 days. NASA has already said that it will only send up two private missions per year.
The ISS is a $150 billion orbiting laboratory used by the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada for experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, and meteorology, as well as other projects. NASA currently pays about $3-$4 billion a year to maintain and operate its portion of the space station. While the agency already permits some commercial activity on the space station, NASA did not allow anything without an educational or research component aboard prior to this announcement.
To reach the ISS, the customers will need to fly up on privately-funded dedicated flights operated by companies like SpaceX and Boeing. They will be able to stay on the ISS up to 30 days, reimbursing the agency’s expenses of about $35,000 per day. NASA says that the costs will be revisited every six months. According to the news release, customers booking the private missions will have access to NASA’s astronauts and technology to execute their projects while aboard.
The move is just one segment of a new, multi-part plan to open the ISS to commercial companies. Eventually, NASA plans to make one port of the ISS available to private companies for commercial purposes. The agency plans to release a call for proposals for that initiative next week. These new goals mean NASA would not de-orbit the space station in 2025, but instead keep it operational possibly through 2030. NASA has promised to return to the Moon by 2024. NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has not disclosed estimates of the project’s total cost, but it is sure to be quite large.