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Why NASA Is Renting the International Space Station for Dirt Cheap

Companies will charge tens of millions of dollars for a single ticket to space, but NASA will see barely any of the money.

by Jordan Pearson
Jun 13 2019, 1:44pm

Image: Flickr/Sam Churchill

NASA officials announced last week that the agency will begin renting out the International Space Station (ISS) for commercial activities for the first time. The policy opens the door to for-profit tourism, advertising, and manufacturing aboard the orbiting science lab.

The announcement marks a shift towards privatization and the enrichment of US corporations in space, and the figures are truly eye-popping. A single ticket to the ISS is estimated by NASA and private space companies—such as Bigelow Space Operations, owned by hotelier Robert Bigelow—to cost upwards of $50 million USD. NASA will only see a sliver of that revenue.

A flight up to the ISS with a full complement of tourists could rake in hundreds of millions of dollars, but NASA will only charge roughly $35,000 per day, per crew. A crew here is defined as "the total makeup of private astronauts on a single flight," NASA said in an emailed statement.

According to Wired, NASA will allow four private astronauts on the station at a time. The agency will also allow two flights of private astronauts per year for 30-day stays, The Verge noted. Doing some quick math, with $58 million tickets (a figure estimated by NASA), that could amount to $464 million USD in ticket sales going to corporations in a year, and $2 million for NASA.

About $50 million is likely a conservative estimate for how much companies will charge for a ticket to the space station according to Brian Weeden, director of program planning for space policy organization Secure World Foundation. It could be much more.

"The truth is that human spaceflight is still extremely expensive and so is operating the ISS," Weeden said. "It is very hard to come up with a business model that covers the costs of either, let alone generates profit."

So, why the huge disparity between what companies will charge to get to space and what NASA takes as a cut?

First, NASA is a federal agency and so it does not aim to make a profit. But more importantly, the program is a giveaway aimed at giving US corporations a shot at becoming profitable in a new, space-based economy.

"This new policy from NASA of commercializing low-Earth orbit is to stimulate the growth of a low-Earth orbit economy," NASA spokesperson Gary Jordan said in an email. "These reimbursable values would offset a portion of NASA’s expenses. NASA’s goal is not to be a profitable venture. Rather, as a federal agency, the goal is make the low-Earth orbit more accessible for many companies to become profitable."

According to Jordan, the prices that NASA came up with for private astronauts aboard the ISS "are strategically subsidized to stimulate the emerging [low-Earth orbit] economy."

NASA is slowly ceding the ISS to private companies in order to shift its focus to other endeavours, like sending humans to the Moon by 2024, Wired noted, as the Trump administration has called for ending US funding to the space station.

Along the way, US corporations will get a deal that's truly out of this world.

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