The International Space Station (ISS) is arguably the single most expensive thing ever built, coming in at over $160 billion. Orbiting 250 miles above our heads, it has been used as a research lab for its 15 year lifetime. In 2014, the U.S. government decided to keep the station operating at least until 2024. Today, there are questions about whether the station’s lifetime should be extended even further.
With annual upkeep taking $3 billion out of NASA’s budget, the main sticking point is the cost. Some of it, however, could be offset by opening the station to private companies. NASA is apparently considering doing just that. It recently released a Request for Information (RFI), asking companies to submit ideas for using the ISS for expanded commercial purposes.
The request does not have any current funding, and NASA is clear to state that the concept of opening the ISS to businesses is very much in early stages. However, the move is the latest step in NASA’s endeavor to foster commercial outer space. With the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has worked with commercial companies like Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) to rebuild American launch capabilities. The U.S. space agency has worked with Bigelow Aerospace to test new ways of building space station modules.
NASA’s cultivation may be paying off. Space commercialization is picking up, with growing international interest, venture capital investment, and satellite launches. With outer space becoming increasingly important for the economy—as well as for national security—the innovation that private business can bring to outer space is needed. Funding for outer space development is likely to remain constrained as well, so private finance will also be vital.
The opening of the ISS could serve as a stepping stone for greater commercialization of outer space. While the station cannot last forever, it can provide a testing bed for new technologies over the rest of its lifetime. The current testing of a Bigelow Aerospace capsule on the station, for example, may help form the foundation for a cheaper, stronger space station in the future. But the government cannot predict what benefits and new systems could come out of innovative American companies. Reusable rockets, for example, were once considered impossible. Now, Blue Origins and SpaceX are landing reusable rockets regularly. Who knows what private industry will be able to make if they are allowed the test-bed of the ISS? Additionally, businesses that benefit from using the station may be more willing to support a successor.
Opening the ISS for business will also allow NASA to more fully focus on its long-term, and harder, goals. Maintaining the ISS takes a significant chunk of the agency’s budget and time. It would be good if even a small portion of that can be redirected to returning to the Moon or landing a person on Mars.
There will, however, be challenges. While the United States has been working to promote the commercialization of outer space, there are still some concerns over how to legally integrate private companies into the environment. The international legal regime is vague, but does tie responsibility for private actors in space directly to their launching country. This means that the United States government would be accountable for any problems that might arise from experiments in space. While the United States has been open to that risk so far—including extending indemnification for catastrophic third party damages for commercial launches through 2025—this may raise regulatory and licensing concerns.
There is also the question of how NASA would select participants. The station has limited time left in its lifespan, and is also constrained in terms of space (even more so if companies would be limited to the American parts of the station). The government should not be in the position to pick winners and losers, but will have to make decisions on which companies to allow onboard. NASA will have to establish a transparent, but rigorous, system for this vetting.
The existence of the station itself, with its participating nations and extended lifespan, demonstrates that challenging technical and regulatory problems in space can be solved. More and more innovative American firms are looking towards outer space as a frontier to explore. Allowing them to use the ISS will help them get there.