The move will allow NASA to focus on returning astronauts to the moon and going to Mars.
It's official: The International Space Station is open for business.
Speaking at the Nasdaq Stock Exchange in New York, NASA officials on Friday unveiled a plan to allow private companies to make use of the space station starting next year.
The plan would allow up to two private astronaut missions per year to visit the space station for up to 30 days and offer companies the opportunity to conduct experiments and pursue other activities there. NASA would also devote one docking port to private operations, which might include attaching an additional module to the station.
"We have no idea what kind of creativity and literally out-of-this-world ideas can come from private industry," Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington, said at the New York event.
Gerstenmaier called the plan a key transition in the life of the space station, which has been orbiting Earth for two decades. "Think about how this space station that we put together to do research, education and outreach is now going to be used to put together a business model," he said. "How could we ever imagine that this space station would have any role, when it was originally designed, in developing new business markets."
Opening the station to commercial ventures will enable the space agency to focus its resources on returning astronauts to the moon and a subsequent mission to Mars. "NASA by its very nature is an exploration agency," Gerstenmaier said.
Robyn Gatens, deputy director of the space station program at NASA headquarters in Washington, said the first commercial flights to the station could begin in 2020.
Private astronauts will be able to fly to the station aboard a commercial capsule, such as SpaceX's Crew Dragon or Boeing's CST-100 Starliner — both of which are still in development and have yet to carry humans. A flight to the space station will likely cost about $58 million per passenger, with a stay at the station costing roughly $35,000 per night for each astronaut, said Jeff DeWit, chief financial officer at NASA headquarters.
The first components used to build the station were launched into space in 1998. The space lab, constructed entirely in low-Earth orbit, is a partnership of the U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia and 11 members states of the European Space Agency.
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