There’s nothing novel about the idea of charging someone big bucks for a trip into space. Russia started charging a string of ultra-wealthy people $ 20 million or more for a trip to the International Space Station (ISS). That was just practice for charging NASA per seat on its Soyuz rockets, but the tables are about to turn. NASA will soon have access to SpaceX and Boeing spacecraft, and it’s considering flying some space tourists of its own.
Advocates for the space tourism move say that it could be an important source of funding for the agency, as well as a way to become more relevant to the American public. It could also aid in the push to stop public financing for the ISS in the mid-2020s. A NASA advisory subcommittee backed the proposal at a meeting last Friday, but it’s still a long way from reality.
In the coming year, both SpaceX and Boeing are expected to demonstrate their crew capsules in both manned and unmanned flights. If everything goes as planned, the companies will get authorization to fly astronauts to and from the International Space Station. However, Boeing has experienced some setbacks after a fuel leak during testing prompted minor design changes. SpaceX continues to be outwardly confident it will hit its goal of a first launch in early 2019.
Once the commercial crew program is active, NASA would be able to stop buying seats on Russia’s Soyuz missions. It would also have a contract for seats onboard SpaceX and Boeing vessels. The proposal working its way through NASA calls on the agency to resell some of those seats to space tourists. It could charge a premium for them even in the era of private space tourism. Companies like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin will only offer passengers a few minutes in space, but NASA could get them to the ISS for a few weeks.
Alongside the space tourism proposal, NASA is also exploring ways to loosen restrictions on advertising and partnering with companies. Currently, NASA doesn’t even put its logo on cargo rockets because that could be seen as an endorsement of the manufacturer. In the future, astronauts could appear in commercials, and NASA could even sell naming rights to rockets. Coca-Cola rocket preparing to dock!
This all probably sounds like it would be in bad taste for NASA, a government agency that has been committed to exploration and science for its entire history. Seeing NASA get into space tourism feels wrong when those seats could go to scientists and engineers who make themselves useful on the ISS. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine dismissed concerns at the subcommittee hearing, saying, “The reality is, we’re in a new era now.”