As NASA prepares to stop funding the International Space Station (ISS) in about a decade, the agency is appealing to companies to use the science lab to test their wildest space-business ideas while they still can. Eventually, NASA hopes that low Earth orbit will become a hub of commercial activity, with enterprises operating in space independently of the ISS.
“NASA is interested in what exciting, new ideas people have for using the ISS that could lead to space being just another place to go to work or school,” NASA said in a request for information in July.
In response, 11 submissions “from a broad range of respondents including individuals, small companies and large companies,” came in, said Sam Scimemi, division director for the ISS program, in an e-mail to Bloomberg.
While the nature of the ideas has not been made public, some of the research already taking place aboard the ISS might offer some clues. Merck, Novartis, and Procter & Gamble are among the companies that have taken advantage of the microgravity environment of the space station to do drug research. Another company has tested the effects of low gravity on alloys, or metals that are used extensively on Earth in car parts, golf clubs, electronics, and medical devices.
Just a few of weeks ago, a research lab developed by Texas-based private company NanoRacks was attached to the space station with two experiments on board. One, sent up by a company called Yosemite Space, is testing how computer chips can be used in future space missions to power autonomous vehicles and data processing.
"What I really hope is what we’re doing with these early commercial researchers, there will one day be way more than the ISS can handle,” Michael Read, who manages National Lab, an economic development program of the ISS, told The Christian Science Monitor in January.
The ISS is well-suited to research in areas like health to materials sciences, and as a testbed for technologies that could be used for missions deeper into space. But there could be other possibilities that NASA hasn’t even considered, the agency says.
“Some companies are asking to use the ISS as a stepping stone for other, more ‘out-of-the box’ concepts, such as future space stations that are commercially owned and operated,” NASA says on its blog. “Whether a commercial space station is a hotel, a research facility, a university, or a combination of all of these ideas is open for discussion.”
A space hotel is not out of the realm of possibility. Tourists delivered to space by Blue Origin, a space tourism company owned by Amazon chief Jeff Bezos, might one day need somewhere to stay. The company has said that it could start shooting paying passengers into space as early as 2018.
NASA, in the meantime, is scheduled to leave the space station by 2028. As the primary funder, the agency is spending $3 billion annually to run the 16-year-old science laboratory orbiting Earth 240 miles up in the air. That expense is expected to rise to $4 billion by 2020, according to ArsTechnica. NASA is promising a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s, and it cannot afford to support both the space station and a deep-space mission, William Gerstenmaier, the agency’s chief of human spaceflight, said last year.
“We’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can,” Mr. Gerstenmaier said at a December meeting, as ArsTechnica reported. “Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA’s vision is we’re trying to move out.”