Since launching in 1998, the International Space Station has played host to countless government-backed experiments aimed at furthering our understanding of the micro-gravity environment. But NASA has been signalling intentions to welcome more commercial partners aboard for a little while, and is now canvassing the private sector for ideas to increase business activity on the orbiting laboratory.
The International Space Station (ISS) has served as an hugely valuable tool when it comes to learning about the effects of micro-gravity on humans. This was most recently demonstrated by hosting astronaut Scott Kelly through his record-breaking yearlong stay in orbit, a mission researchers are continuing to pick apart for evidence of changes in human physiology.
But lately NASA has made a public effort to ween the ISS off the teat of government-funded research and court commercial partners who may benefit from directing funds into micro-gravity research, or by offering services to its inhabitants like SpaceX's Dragon resupply missions.
And this month it has upped the ante somewhat by releasing a Request for Information designed to gauge private sector interest in space research, and inspire ideas for how future partnerships could be formed. It hopes that the unique capabilities and research opportunities of the ISS, which include things like unused attachment ports and trunnion pins, catch the eye of commercial parties and, eventually, help give rise to some kind of low-Earth orbit economy.
"The space station was designed with what we thought was a full set of utilization capabilities," says William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. "However, we are finding that industry is more innovative than we'd imagined and has ideas to use the station in ways we never envisioned for research or commercial activities. We're asking industry to help us understand how best to offer these unique capabilities, such as unused attachment ports or non-standard attachment sites, to commercial users. I'm looking forward to seeing how the private sector responds."