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.
“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.
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.
“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)
After NASA and SpaceX successfully completed a launch escape demonstration of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft and Falcon 9 rocket, Elon Musk said that his aerospace company aims to send NASA astronauts to space between April and June this year.
This was the final major flight test of the spacecraft before it begins carrying astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) under NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme, the US space agency said in a statement on Sunday.
With this test now complete, the next big flight of the Crew Dragon will have people on board: NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley.
“We’re highly confident that the hardware will be ready in Q1, most likely at the end of February but no later than March. And we think it appears probable that the first crewed launch would occur in the second quarter,” said Musk after the successful uncrewed test of its Crew Dragon capsule’s in-flight launch escape capabilities.
Musk said that if all goes well, the first crewed flight on the Crew Dragon could take place in the second quarter of this year.
“This critical flight test puts us on the cusp of returning the capability to launch astronauts in American spacecraft on American rockets from American soil,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “We are thrilled with the progress NASA’s Commercial Crew Programme is making and look forward to the next milestone for Crew Dragon.”
As part of the test on Sunday, SpaceX configured Crew Dragon to trigger a launch escape about 1.5 minutes after liftoff. All major functions were executed, including separation, engine firings, parachute deployment and landing. Crew Dragon splashed down at 10:38 am just off the Florida coast in the Atlantic Ocean.
“As far as we can tell thus far, it’s a picture perfect mission. It went as well as one can possibly expect,” said Musk. “This is a reflection of the dedication and hard work of the SpaceX and NASA teams to achieve this goal. Obviously, I’m super fired up. This is great.”
Prior to the flight test, teams completed launch day procedures for the first crewed flight test, from suit-up to launch pad operations. The joint teams now will begin the full data reviews that need to be completed prior to NASA astronauts flying the system during SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission. “The past few days have been an incredible experience for us,” said astronaut Doug Hurley.
“Today, we watched the demonstration of a system that we hope to never use, but can save lives if we ever do. It took a lot of work between NASA and SpaceX to get to this point, and we can’t wait to take a ride to the space station soon,” he said in the NASA statement. (IANS)