Should the space station have a dedicated port for private spaceflight?

During a Senate hearing Wednesday on the future of NASA, one official discussed the possibility of dedicating a special port on the International Space Station for private spacecraft.

Sierra Nevada Space Systems/AP
This artist's rendering provided by Sierra Nevada Space Systems in 2012 shows the company's Dream Chaser spacecraft docking with the International Space Station.

NASA Human Exploration and Operations Administrator William Gerstenmaier said in a Senate hearing Wednesday that the space agency would be open to the possibility of private companies docking their spacecraft in a special port on the International Space Station.

Dr. Gerstenmaier's statement came in response to Attorney Michael Gold, an aerospace executive at Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace, who asked if manned American spacecraft could would return to the space station. The last US spacecraft to visit the space station was the Space Shuttle Atlantis, which in 2011 flew the final mission of the US shuttle program.

Gerstenmaier said a plan was already in place to bring the private sector into the picture. NASA will put out a “Request for Information,” he said, that could lead to private companies docking spacecraft at the orbiting space station.

NASA would benefit from ideas companies generated about how to use the space station port – and the firms could develop their own commercial interests, such as cargo transport.

Gold said, “If we do have a presence in cislunar, or the moon, or Mars, it could open up all kinds of opportunities for the private sector. Commercial cargo programs could bring cargo out to cislunar, moon or Mars.” 'Cislunar' refers to the space between Earth and the moon.

There have been two recent private cargo shuttle failures – the most famous being one launched by SpaceX. But Gerstenmaier said that the private sector has shown the ability to bounce back.

“The private sector can recover from these failures rather quickly,” he said. “They understood why the failure occurred and what they needed to do to get back flying again.”

Gold summarized the situation this way. “I can’t tell you whose going to be in charge of NASA eight to nine months from now, but I can tell you whose going to be in control of space systems that are out there,” he said, suggesting that the private sector would emerge.

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