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3 Astronauts Return to Earth after 115-Day Mission on International Space Station

During the mission, NASA's Rubins successfully sequenced samples of mouse, virus and bacteria DNA while scientists on Earth simultaneously sequenced identical samples

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Russian space agency rescue team helps U.S. astronaut Kate Rubins to get from the capsule shortly after landing of the Russian Soyuz MS space capsule about 150 km (90 miles) southeast of the Kazakh town of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016. VOA

October 30, 2016: Three astronauts have returned to Earth safely after a 115-day mission aboard the International Space Station where American Kate Rubins became the first person to sequence DNA in space.

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Rubins, along with Japan’s Takuya Onishi and Russia’s Anatoly Ivanishin landed Sunday morning near Dzhezkazgan on the treeless Central Asian Steppes.

After they were removed from the capsule, the three space travelers sat on the chilly steppes still in their capsule seats while readjusting to the force of gravity after nearly four months of experiencing weightlessness. They were then taken to a nearby medical tent for examination.

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During the mission, NASA’s Rubins successfully sequenced samples of mouse, virus and bacteria DNA while scientists on Earth simultaneously sequenced identical samples. The U.S. space agency says the experiment could help identify possible dangerous microbes on the space station and diagnose illnesses in space.

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Still onboard the ISS are Russian cosmonauts Andrei Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhykov, along with American astronaut Robert Shane Kimbrough. The three arrived at the space station on October 22. (VOA)

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NASA to Open Parts of ISS to More Commercial Opportunities Including Private Astronaut Missions

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts

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NASA also plans to build a space outpost in lunar orbit that can relay astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. VOA

NASA will open parts of the International Space Station to more commercial opportunities, it announced Friday, allowing companies to use the space station’s facilities in a number of ways, including private astronaut missions.

The space agency has balked at commercial ventures in the past, but the cost of operating the space station, which is one of the agency’s greatest expenses, currently runs $3 billion to $4 billion a year, or more than $8 million a day. NASA leadership has made it clear that the agency wants to eventually transition control of the space station and its region of space, low Earth orbit, to the private sector.

NASA, private astronaut mission
FILE – A photo provided by NASA TV shows a cargo ship as it arrives at the International Space Station, Dec. 13, 2016. VOA

“What this is, is an investment in the future for demand for low-Earth platforms” said Mike Read, the manager of Commercial Space Utilization at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, told VOA News. “What we want to do is leverage the station and try to enable others to turn a business model … while we have the infrastructure of the space station.”

By handing control of the space station over to commercial ventures, NASA could have more money to pursue more ambitious missions, such as building a new space station around the moon and sending humans back to the lunar surface.

In late 2018, the agency selected 12 companies to study the potential growth of a low-Earth orbit economy and how to best stimulate demand for human space flight. (Low-Earth orbit means altitudes below 2,000 km or 1,240 miles.) This group brainstormed ways companies could turn a profit at the space station, and the members decided that allowing corporations to build and market their products using space station resources would help ignite the economy NASA is seeking to build on.

But getting to space is not cheap.

Private astronaut missions will be limited to two flights per year, or about 12 astronauts per year, and come at a significant cost. The cost of travel and accommodations will have to be picked up by the private sector.

nasa, private astronaut mission
FILE – The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule is pictured, March 3, 2019, about 20 meters (66 feet) from the International Space Station’s Harmony module. VOA

As of now, the only ways to get to the space station are spacecraft developed by Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Boeing, so “whatever prices Boeing and SpaceX set is on them,” said Jeff DeWit, NASA’s chief financial officer.

NASA pays about $80 million per seat, a price that it is working to trim to $50 million per seat, to send its astronauts.

Apart from the cost of getting there, companies hoping to work on the space station will have to pay to stay there: One night’s stay would be about $35,000 for one person, DeWit said.

“It’s now up to you to use your creativity — your ingenuity — and figure out how you can generate potential revenue,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration.

ALSO READ: NASA: Skywatchers will be Able to See Jupiter’s Largest Moons Using Just Binoculars

‘Learning experience’

“This is the beginning of us actively starting open dialogue with the industry to figure out how we can open up space to commercial activities, where revenue can be generated from private sector companies. … This is going to be a growing and learning experience for both [sides].”

But NASA’s Read points out a key element to this new venture: “We are a government bureaucracy that is trying to enable development of a new economy. That’s pretty different,” he said. (VOA)