Nasa is opening up the International Space Station for tourism and commercial marketing, as the US space agency looks to cut its spending on the 20-year-old project and free more of its budget to explore the moon and beyond.
In an interim directive released on Friday, the agency said it would expand the very limited commercial activities it already allows on its half of the space station. Russia already allows private astronauts and other commercial activities on its segment of the ISS.
“Nasa has been trying to open up ISS to commercialisation for a long time, but very few companies have had any interest,” said Laura Forczyk at Astralytical, a US space consultancy. Until now, private companies have been limited to conducting research, but few have seen any return due to the high costs of getting to space, she added.
Nasa’s latest gesture to the private sector throws open the doors of the ISS to private astronauts, manufacturing products that benefit from being made in a microgravity environment, and other commercial and marketing activities.
Use of the facilities will come at a hefty price. Access to the space station’s “regenerative life support and toilet” will cost $11,250 a day, with another $22,500 daily charge for crew supplies like food, air and exercise equipment. Other extras guaranteed to make the ISS the most expensive hotel on or off the planet include $42 for a kWh of power and $50 to send a gigabit of data back to Earth.
“There’s a lot of interest in marketing on the space station,” said Ms Forczyk, though she said that it was unclear how permissive Nasa would be. “What are the limits imposed on that — will anybody be allowed to market, and in what ways?”
The agency will have considerable discretion, giving it a say over whether the ISS is used as the ultimate backdrop for a beer commercial during next year’s Super Bowl. The agency’s directive requires marketing activities to either “have a nexus to the Nasa mission” or to “support the development of a sustainable [Low Earth Orbit] economy”. It also spells out certain limits, such as not using Nasa logos or the likenesses of its astronauts in any marketing, and requires marketing to be “factually accurate”.
One problem for private companies looking to venture into space was that “nothing in the station was designed to be commercial — there are a lot of technical issues that make it not super-optimal,” said Greg Autry, a former White House liaison to Nasa. For instance, companies looking to carry out research in microgravity face the challenge of having “an astronaut on a piece of exercise equipment next to it, bouncing it up and down”, he added.
The biggest commercial breakthrough from opening up the ISS could involve using it as a launch-pad for fully private space stations in the future, Mr Autry said. Nasa’s directive includes opening up a port on the vehicle to allow it to connect to a module built by a private company. Two US companies — Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom — have been vying for access to the ISS as the first step in assembling their own habitats in space, with the aim of eventually having them float free in Low Earth Orbit.
The Trump administration has been looking for ways to reduce government spending of about $3.5bn a year on the ISS. A proposal last year to bring an end to the project met resistance on Capitol Hill.
“There are certainly ways we can get commercial value out of it and extend its life for use in research and the economy,” said Mr Autry.