Tourists can soon visit space station

The International Space Station is seen in 2001 in a photo taken by a crew member on the space shuttle Discovery. NASA announced Friday that for the first time it is allowing private citizens to visit the ISS, the only place where people currently live off the planet. NASA is not selling space vacations directly, but allowing commercial companies to arrange such trips. NASA via New York Times file

Becoming a NASA astronaut is far harder than getting into Harvard — of the thousands of hopeful spacewalkers who apply, NASA accepts only a handful.

But now ordinary people — at least those with tens of millions of dollars to spend — can go to space.

NASA announced Friday that for the first time it is allowing private citizens to visit the International Space Station, the only place where people currently live off the planet.

Friday’s announcement was one of several new policies designed to allow companies to take advantage of the space station for more commercial activities, something that NASA has often frowned on in the past.

“This is a huge different way for us to do business,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during a news conference at Nasdaq in New York City.

NASA is not transforming into a space travel agency, and it will not be selling vacations directly. Instead it will charge private companies about $35,000 a night for use of the station’s facilities and amenities, including air, water, the internet and the toilet.

The tourist companies would charge much more to cover the rocket flights to and from space, and to make a profit.

The announcement is an initial step in a shift that could help resolve the tumult arising from a proposal last year that raised questions about the space station’s future. The Trump administration had proposed ending federal financing of the International Space Station by the end of 2024 and a move to commercial alternatives that do not yet exist.

On Friday, NASA officials said the goal was an eventual transition to commercial space stations, but there was no set date.

“We’re hoping new capabilities will develop that can one day take over for the space station,” said Robyn Gatens, deputy space station director for NASA. “We won’t transition off station until we have something else to go to, so we don’t have a date certain.”

Among the agency’s other announcements Friday: It will allow some activities that are purely for profit, without requiring some educational or research component. That could include flying trinkets to space and selling them on Earth.

Later this month, NASA will seek proposals for adding a module to the space station that is owned and operated by a private company, and it will select a plan by the end of the year.

What is not up for sale, at least in Friday’s announcements, are corporate sponsorships for parts of the station. There are also still limits to what NASA astronauts can do: For example, astronauts would be allowed to film a television commercial in space but would not be allowed to endorse a product.

While pricey, the revenues generated by space tourism for NASA would not come close to covering the costs of operating the space station, which are one of the agency’s greatest expenses. It currently spends $3 billion to $4 billion a year, or more than $8 million a day.

“It’s not going to be a profit-making venture for NASA at all,” said Jeff DeWitt, the agency’s chief financial officer.

DeWitt said it was too early to estimate how much money NASA could receive through the new ventures, and he said the agency would adjust how much it charges depending on market demand.

Bigelow Space Operations of North Las Vegas, Nev., has already reserved four launches. The company will use SpaceX, the rocket company run by Elon Musk, to take private astronauts. Each flight would have at least four seats.

Because Bigelow is purchasing whole trips aboard the SpaceX capsule, its schedule would be independent of NASA’s, and the stays could be longer, perhaps 30 or 60 days, said Robert Bigelow, chief executive of Bigelow Space Operations and Bigelow Aerospace, a sister company that has an experimental inflatable module currently docked at the station.

The company has yet to start looking for passengers.

“We have to get to first base, which is getting to the point where we can even have something to talk about,” he said.

Bigelow also said no fares have been set.

“What we realize is there are many different ways to price these seats depending on who you are and what you’re doing,” he said.

Axiom Space of Houston, run by Michael Suffredini, a former NASA space station manager, is also arranging flights and hopes to fly tourists next year.

Bigelow and Axiom aim to use the International Space Station as the starting point for setting up their own space stations in orbit. Bigelow said flying tourists to the International Space Station would give his company experience at handling the complex logistics of arranging spaceflights.

In the 2000s, seven private citizens visited the space station, but those trips were arranged through the Russians, which operate half the station. At the time, NASA said it was not interested in such ventures.

The International Space Station is the only place where people — no more than six at a time — live away from Earth. Fifteen nations, led by the United States and Russia, are involved in its operations.

Some companies already conduct modest experiments on the space station, such as Merck Research Laboratories, which has grown crystals of antibodies, and Made in Space, which is testing the manufacture of higher quality optical communications fiber in the weightlessness of orbit.

But those are heavily subsidized by NASA, which pays for the transportation costs to and from the station.

Bigelow and Axiom will be among the competitors to add a commercial module, an idea that began percolating at NASA during the Obama administration.

“That’s what I’m waiting for,” Suffredini said. “Three years I’ve been waiting.

NASA will later ask for proposals for a second commercial module that is not permanently connected to the space station but orbits separately.

NASA officials said instead of announcing a series of limited contracts aboard the station, they had decided to lay out general ground rules for what private companies could do on the station.

“We thought it was important to describe the entire commercial market as we see it today,” Gerstenmaier said.

He added that this would allow the private sector to decide where profitable niches could be.