NASA is planning to allow private astronauts to fly to the International Space Station and open up the orbiting laboratory to more commercial interests, including filming advertisements, in an attempt to help fund its plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, the agency announced Friday.
The announcement is a significant change for the agency that has had a long-standing prohibition against allowing tourists and commercial interests on the station, which has cost taxpayers about $100 billion over its life span. Russia, however, has allowed several private astronauts on the station.
Under the NASA plan, as many as two private astronauts per year could fly to the station and stay for up to 30 days with the first mission coming as early as next year.
Jeff DeWit, NASA's chief financial officer, estimates that the cost per trip would be about $50 million a seat. But the cost and arrangements would be left to SpaceX and Boeing, the two companies NASA has hired to fly crews to the station. While on board the station, NASA would charge people for food, storage and communication, a cost that would come to about $35,000 a night.
"But it won't come with any Hilton or Marriott points," DeWit said.
Travelers don't have to be U.S. citizens. People from other countries will be eligible, as long as they fly on a U.S.-operated rocket. But the private astronauts will have to meet the same medical standards, training and certification procedures as regular crew members.
Now, commercial activity on the station is largely limited to science experiments. But under the new policy, NASA would allow businesses to pursue profit by allowing them a range of pursuits, including marketing and advertising.
The announcement comes as the agency is trying to return humans to the moon by 2024, a crash mission that officials said would require significant additional funding.
NASA has already amended its budget request for next year to ask for an addition $1.6 billion, and has said that it would need significantly more money in the years to come to have any chance at pulling off such an ambitious plan.
While pricey, the revenue 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.
DeWit said it was too early to estimate how much money NASA could receive through the new ventures, and that 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 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.
TRUMP'S MOON TWEET
Also Friday, President Donald Trump criticized NASA for promoting its plan to return to the moon before exploring Mars, a strategy that Trump endorsed in a directive early in his tenure and championed as recently as last month.
"For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon -- We did that 50 years ago," Trump said on Twitter. "They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!"
The tweet, sent from Air Force One as Trump returned from a trip to Europe, did not make clear whether he thinks the strategy should be entirely abandoned or whether he was more concerned about how NASA was branding the strategy.
A White House official sought to downplay any difference between what Trump had tweeted and existing policy.
"Our Administration's goal has always been to get to Mars," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly and requested anonymity, in an email. "We have asked Congress for additional resources to get to the Moon by 2024, which will enable us to get to Mars roughly a decade after creating a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. Under POTUS, America is leading again in space."
A tweet later Friday by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine did little to clarify the impact of Trump's tweet.
"As POTUS said, NASA is using the Moon to send humans to Mars!" the tweet said. "Right now, MarsCuriosity and NASAInSight are on Mars and will soon be joined by the Mars 2020 rover and the Mars helicopter."
Trump's tweet was sent shortly after Fox Business host Neil Cavuto questioned on air why NASA is "refocusing on the moon, the next sort of quest, if you will," and asked: "But didn't we do this moon thing quite a few decades ago?"
The policy of first going back to the moon grew from a unanimous recommendation by the new National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, after its first meeting in October 2017.
At a ceremony where Trump signed a directive regarding the policy two months later, he said first returning to the moon would "establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars, and perhaps someday, to many worlds beyond."
In a tweet three weeks ago, Trump touted his administration's commitment to space exploration, writing: "Under my Administration, we are restoring NASA to greatness and we are going back to the Moon, then Mars."
In a speech in March, Pence announced that NASA was moving its timeline for landing humans back on the moon up by four years, to 2024. He cast the mission as part of a new space race against superpowers such as Russia and China, which landed a spacecraft on the far side of the moon earlier this year.
In public documents, NASA has argued that "exploration of the Moon and Mars is intertwined."
"The Moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems, and technologies and practices that could help us build self-sustaining outposts away from Earth," the agency says in one document available on its website.
Information for this article was contributed by Christian Davenport and John Wagner of The Washington Post; by Jeremy Rehm of The Associated Press; and by Kenneth Chang of The New York Times.
A Section on 06/08/2019
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