The International Space Station (ISS) is set to open its doors to tourists from next year, NASA has announced in a dramatic reversal in policy. Anthony Pearce reports
The space agency has previously resisted requests from private astronauts to visit the ISS, which has been in low Earth orbit for almost 21 years.
From 2020, two private astronauts a year will be able to stay on board the ISS for up to 30 days each. They will have to pay a rate of US$35,000 per day and use a commercial US spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s vessels, to get there.
NASA is looking at new commercial collaborations after US President Donald Trump published a budget calling for the station to be defunded by the government by 2025.
At the same time, the Trump administration has challenged NASA to return humans to the moon by 2024 but is yet to allocate budget.
The ISS, which serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory, is a joint project between five participating space agencies: NASA, Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (Canada).
Visitors to the ISS in 2020, however, won’t be the first commercial astronauts. In 2001, US businessman Dennis Tito paid the Russian government around US$20 million for a round trip. Richard Garriott, an English-American entrepreneur whose pitch to NASA was turned down, paid Russia US$30 million for a two-week stay in 2008.
He told Business Insider that the announcement represented a “seismic shift” in US space policy.
NASA chief financial officer Jeff DeWit said: “NASA is opening the International Space Station to commercial opportunities and marketing these opportunities as we’ve never done before.”
Astronaut Christina Koch said in a NASA tweet. “We are so excited to be part of NASA as our home and laboratory in space transitions into being accessible to expanded commercial and marketing opportunities, as well as to private astronauts.”
She said: “Enabling a vibrant economy in low-Earth orbit has always been a driving element of the space station program, and will make space more accessible to all Americans. Transitioning toward this new model of business is an important step to allow NASA to move full speed ahead in landing the first woman and the next man on the moon.”
NASA has said it hopes the ISS will be just one of many “commercial and free-flying habitable destinations in low-Earth orbit.”
Earlier in the month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said his company could take humans to the moon by 2021 – three years ahead of NASA’s plan.