Want to Buy a Ticket to the Space Station? NASA Says Soon You Can
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 on 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 H. Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during a news conference at Nasdaq in New York.
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.
Among the agency’s other announcements today: 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 where commercial activities can be carried out, 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, NASA 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.
Mr. 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 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, the 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.
Mr. 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.
Both Bigelow and Axiom aim to use the International Space Station as the starting point for setting up their own space stations in orbit. Mr. 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 did visit the space station, but those trips were arranged through the Russians, which operate half of 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.
Last year, the Trump administration proposed eliminating direct federal contributions to the space station by the end of 2024 and allocating $150 million to develop “commercial successors.”
Congressional opposition to that proposal led to a more modest NASA request this year: “By 2025, the budget envisions commercial capabilities on the International Space Station as well as new commercial facilities and platforms to continue the American presence in Earth orbit.”
On Friday, NASA officials described the transition plan as still a proposal, and the commercial initiatives announced today were a step to that future.
“We’re hoping new capabilities will develop that can one day take over for the space station,” said Robyn Gatens, the 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.”