NASA astronaut Kate Rubins inspects the BEAM inflatable habitat on the International Space Station in 2016. Image: NASA
As part of a NASA initiative, private companies will soon have the opportunity to add their own modules to the ISS. Whether or not those modules will come with their own staff remains to be seen.NASA is looking to turn low-Earth orbit over to private industry so it can focus on Mars. In a blog post published on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, explains that the key to creating a thriving economy in low-Earth orbit is a vibrant user community. Meaning private companies, and lots of them.
This announcement comes just a few months after NASA put out a call, looking for new and innovative ways to use the ISS. According to NASA, 12 responses were received from a myriad of respondents, ranging from individuals, to large companies. After reviewing the submissions, a few things became clear: the responses were way more inventive that NASA would have imagined, and companies wanted their own space."The private sector responded enthusiastically," Bolden explained. "Those responses indicated a strong desire by U.S. companies to attach a commercial module to the ISS that could meet the needs of NASA as well as those of private entrepreneurs."The agency hopes that the addition of future modules (which could attach to a docking port currently occupied by the BEAM module) will not only increase the number of people living and working in space, but that it will also help private companies create their own space stations in the future. (And maybe even that space Disneyland that Robert Bigelow promised us).
Bolden and NASA are hopeful the new initiative will not only encourage innovation in the private sector, but also help transition the space station from a government entity to a privately-run lab. As of right now, NASA is looking to retire the space station in 2024, but first needs to find new management."While NASA prepares for the transition from the Space Station to its successors," Bolden said, "the agency is also working to support and grow the community of scientists and entrepreneurs conducting research and growing businesses in space."
To support the growing science demand, NASA has contracted three private companies to ferry cargo (including research experiments and supplies) to and from the space station. In addition, the agency has partnered with two private companies — SpaceX and Boeing — to launch astronauts to the station as early as 2018.NASA has also started testing out expandable habitat modules. The first, dubbed the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (aka the BEAM), was installed earlier this year. Constructed out of a durable kevlar material, this type of habitat offers many advantages over the bulky, metallic modules carried up by the space shuttle. Not only is it cheaper to launch, but since it's bigger on the inside that previous designs, it's basically the TARDIS of space habs. The BEAM prototype will remain affixed to the space station for two years while engineers record how it handles the space environment. Bigelow is already testing the BEAM's successor, the B330, and would like to see it on orbit in the next few years.Does the promise of new modules mean we will soon see private astronauts working on the ISS, or even private citizens visiting as tourists again? A small handful of wealthy individuals have visited the ISS following Dennis Tito's historic flight in 2001, through the company Space Adventures. But none have since 2011, despite a proposal that such flights would resume in 2013.As for the possibility of private astronauts or new tourists to the ISS using the proposed commercial modules, NASA appears to be still ironing out the details. Motherboard asked about these possibilities, but a NASA spokesperson said in an emailed statement that "we are still working through the next steps so we can't address specific questions at this time."
The eventual ISS handoff is a key step on NASA's Journey to Mars. Six years ago, during a speech at Kennedy Space Center, President Barack Obama challenged NASA and the country to embark on its next giant leap. A leap that would make humanity a multi-planetary species.In that call-to-action Obama outlined a plan that would cultivate a strong space economy through commercial partnerships while allowing NASA to do what it does best: develop the technologies needed to send astronauts farther into space than ever before.Obama reiterated that plan Tuesday with an op-ed published on CNN.com."We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth," Obama stated. "Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we're already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station."Bolden's blog post echoed much of what Obama said, with both officials agreeing the road would not be easy, and will require the public and private sector to work together. But just how soon that work will involve getting private citizens into space is still to be determined.