NASA declares International Space Station ‘open for business,’ including private astronaut visits

At an event on Friday, NASA laid out its plans for making the International Space Station a hub for commercial activity in low Earth orbit. The agency has long planned to make the ISS a key anchor point for helping private business operate in space.

“We’re here because the International Space Station is now open for business,” NASA lead spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz said at the conference outset. Twenty companies joined NASA officials onstage to launch this new commercial ability and discuss the opportunities and plan.

Part of the plan includes allowing private astronauts to visit and stay on the ISS, traveling on U.S. vehicles. It also includes allowing private business activities to take place on the ISS, including “in-space manufacturing,” marketing activities, healthcare research “and more,” NASA says.

NASA articulated a five-part plan that it says “doesn’t conflict” with government and public sector use of the ISS, but that stands to allow creative and varied revenue-generating opportunities for private actors. NASA’s goal overall is to become “one of many” users of the ISS and low Earth orbit facilities, the agency said, and this should lead to benefits for tax payers, too.

Here’s NASA’s five-part plan, as described at a high level today:

  • Part one – NASA created an International Space Station Commercial Use Policy. It provides an initial supply or quota of resources, including crew time, and cargo launch and return capabilities for purchase by private companies.
  • Part two – Private astronauts can visit for up to two short durations per year, beginning early as 2020. Missions will be privately funded, dedicated commercial space flight and will have to use U.S. spacecraft (including those being certified by the NASA crew space travel program, like SpaceX’s Crew Dragon). NASA will lay out pricing for use of life support, crew supply, storage and data.
  • Part three – The forward part of ISS Node 2 Harmony module is available as the first element of commercial destination. They characterized this as an initial step toward future commercial habitable modules in space. There’s a request for proposals coming on June 14 and NASA will select a first customer to award the port’s development by end of this fiscal year.
  • Part four – NASA is developing a plan to stimulate long-term commercial demand, and it’s starting by studying space manufacturing and regenerative medicine in particular. The agency is asking for white papers by June 15 and proposals by July 28.
  • Part fiveĀ – NASA has a new white paper that articulates the minimum viable needs for long-term commercial operations in long-term orbit.

Lowering price for commercial transit is incredibly important to this plan overall, and that came up repeatedly; it seems like this is mostly a call to private entities to help solve these and other problems to make sure that commercialization is not only available, but also viable. Another piece of the plan is that long-term, over the next decade or so, private entities investing in the ISS can potentially replace it with a privately run space station, which would help address its eventual end-of-life replacement plans.

SpaceX’s Dragon capsule departing the ISS during a resupply launch

In an interview from April, TechCrunch’s Jon Shieber spoke to ISS National Lab Deputy Chief Scientist Dr. Michael Roberts about the station’s commercialization.

Dr. Roberts articulated some of the potential opportunities for private entities doing business on the ISS, including high interest in the “fundamental discovery” of areas like preclinical testing or drug delivery mechanisms in the pharmaceutical industry, for instance. In the manufacturing industry, Dr. Roberts pointed to private actors who are looking at ways to improve existing manufacturing practices, with the added benefit of operating in a zero-G and vacuum environment.

One of the key details here is a broadening of what’s allowed in terms of marketing activities done on the ISS: the U.S. NASA crew on board ISS can participate in some marketing activities (but essentially just behind the camera acting more as crew), and private astronauts will have a broader mandate, with much more flexibility in terms of what they can do in terms of advertising and promotion. So we could theoretically see a lot of Red Bull exxxttreemmmmeee!!! promotional activities, if this trends dystopian.

There are 50 private companies running experiments on the ISS right now, according to NASA, but this announcement is about laying a framework that could better formalize and scale that opportunity over time.

Additional reporting by Jon Shieber.