In a move emphasizing NASA's desire to focus on deep space exploration instead of low-Earth orbit (LEO) activities, the space agency is opening the International Space Station (ISS) to limited commercial use, including hosting private astronauts. The plans not only involve making room on the station for commercial services, but also reserves a docking berth for a privately owned and operated habitat module.

Though NASA will continue with its own LEO research and testing in the run-up to the return of American astronauts to the Moon, it is also intent on encouraging the development of a space-based private economy. In recent years, we've already seen this in the form of the highly visible program to hand over the US ferrying of crews to and from the ISS to private vendors, but the space agency has also been encouraging companies to conduct commercial R&D on the station.

To date, more than 50 companies do so through the International Space Station US National Laboratory mandate, with 11 companies installing 14 commercial facilities on the ISS, but the government wants to encourage a larger scale and more general commercial presence that encompasses many different markets. The hope is that this will not only lead to a whole new branch of the world economy, as happened in the wake of the Age of Exploration, but will also allow NASA access to space services at a much lower cost.

In hopes of expanding this support beyond simple research and development, NASA want's companies to move into actual manufacturing and production in space. To achieve this, NASA has released a list of prices for commercial and marketing activities related to the ISS. The directive released on Friday is provisional and the agency says that the prices and the resources offered will be amended every six months based on the responses received.

The initial offering is to sell to each bidder five percent of NASA's annual allocation of crew resources and station cargo capacity, as well as 90 hours of crew time and 175 kg (386 lb) of payload space aboard a cargo shipment to the space station. The reason for this tight share offering is to encourage competition among customers.

In addition NASA has extended an invitation to private astronauts to visit the ISS for up to 30 days to carry out approved commercial activities, with the first mission possible by 2020. The station will accept up to two visits per year with the astronauts flying aboard US manned spacecraft.

However, none of this will be a matter of buying a ticket and queuing at the gate. Commercial activities must require the unique properties of a microgravity environment, have some connection to NASA's overall mission, or support the development of an LEO economy. Meanwhile, the astronauts must meet the same medical, training and certification standards as government space station crew members.

According to NASA, the goal of all this is to make better use of the ISS and also produce more destinations for manned space flights in LEO. As part of this, NASA is offering a berth on the station's Harmony module, where a commercial module could one day be temporarily docked for manufacturing and production purposes. NASA is seeking concepts for in-space manufacturing, regenerative medicine, bioengineering, and other fields that could lead to an ongoing, financially-viable commercial activities in space that produce a sustainable Earthside demand.

Source: NASA

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