NASA wants to purchase a seat on a private astronaut flight in the next five years, the agency announced earlier this week.
It’s another move that should open up the International Space Station to astronauts outside the government sphere — which is a big difference from today.
Most people in space are government employees. To be fair, a handful of space tourists have visited the orbiting complex, such as entrepreneur Dennis Tito and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte. But these people paid large sums of money to Russian officials and were not employed by any company. Future private astronauts may be employees of a firm, sent up for 15 to 30 days for a specific set of experiments or other work that can only be done in space.
NASA recognizes its role as a government reference customer to stimulate the space economy. That’s one reason that it purchased so many ISS cargo flights from SpaceX and Northrop Grumman over the years, and why it gave government contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to fly government astronauts on private spacecraft in the near future (perhaps 2020, if all goes to plan).
But private astronaut flights are another frontier altogether.
The agency has a vision of opening up the ISS to a series of companies that would bring up their own astronauts, paying essentially a rental fee to use NASA space facilities for their own work. And NASA plans to put a government astronaut on at least one of these flights to give a bit of seed money, which would help boost the efforts to bring more private astronauts into space.
“The purchase of a private astronaut mission seat will directly support NASA’s low-Earth orbit commercialization goals,” NASA said in a statement, adding that this will ensure Americans will remain in orbit and will give the United States a boost in setting up more commercialization in space. (NASA officials were not available for further comment at this time due to the Thanksgiving holiday.)
Any company interested in participating can check out NASA’s open solicitation, which will require a response by April 1, 2020. The spacecraft used for these flights will most likely be seat purchases aboard SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner. Comments from a senior NASA official on Twitter suggested the agency would not be the one in charge of these missions.
“NASA will be one of many customers, purchasing one of four available seats on a commercial flight,” Doug Comstock, the commercial low Earth orbit liaison for the agency’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said on Twitter Wednesday (Nov. 27).
“NASA intends to purchase a single seat. Other customers for the flight are TBD [to be determined] and up to industry,” Comstock said in an additional tweet.
This fresh news is a follow-on from NASA’s earlier stated intentions this year to add private astronauts to the mix of space station flights. The Trump administration and NASA alike are keen on expanding the business opportunities available in low Earth orbit and also at the moon, where NASA plans to launch humans by 2024. The eventual goal is to build a network of companies in between the Earth and the moon in preparation for future human missions to Mars in the 2030s, if all goes to plan.
Sources: • Forbes
Featured Image: NASA