NASA Looking at Ways to Commercialize International Space Station

The International Space Station
The International Space Station. (Image credit: NASA)

In the not-too-distant future, NASA astronauts might conduct their video interviews from the International Space Station (ISS) while wearing Nike-supplied T-shirts, with a giant Toyota logo visible on the module wall behind them.

NASA is developing a commercial-use policy for the orbiting lab, to open up more opportunities for private companies, agency officials said.

"Today, there's a number of activities that are prohibited. They can't do advertising and marketing, and fly trinkets — things that are pure for-profit activities," NASA ISS Deputy Director Robyn Gatens said Wednesday (Feb. 28) during a presentation with the agency's Future In-Space Operations working group. [Building the International Space Station (Photos)]

"We would like to broaden that, but we need to explore what policy or legal or programmatic changes we would have to make in order to do that," Gatens added. "So, we're starting to dive into that and develop that policy so that we can allow these commercial entities to use the ISS to begin experimenting with a broader set of market possibilities."

That's not to imply that there's no commercial activity associated with the ISS now. The private companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK already launch robotic cargo missions to the orbiting lab. And SpaceX and Boeing hold multibillion-dollar NASA contracts to ferry agency astronauts to and from the station; if all goes well, these taxi flights could begin in the next year or so.

In addition, an inflatable module built by Nevada company Bigelow Aerospace has been attached to the ISS since April 2016. And a great deal of commercial research is conducted aboard the U.S. segment of the station, an officially designated national laboratory that's managed by the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).

"They've been very busy developing demand for commercial research and technology development through the national lab," Gatens said of CASIS. "Over 50 percent of their new projects are commercial entities now, versus other government agencies or academia."

This push to commercialize the ISS lines up with a broader desire to privatize activities throughout LEO in general, a stated priority of President Donald Trump. For example, the White House's 2019 federal budget request, which was released last month, eliminates direct funding for the ISS in 2025 and allocates $150 million "to encourage development of new commercial low-Earth orbital platforms and capabilities for use by the private sector and NASA," according to NASA's budget overview.

The budget request still must pass both houses of Congress, and some notable folks on Capitol Hill have already voiced opposition to the ISS defunding plan. But even if the broad outlines of the proposal go into effect, we shouldn't rush to carve "2025" into the $100 billion orbiting lab's tombstone, Gatens stressed.

"That doesn't necessarily imply that the platform itself will be deorbited in 2025," she said. "It's possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements of the ISS, or the entire ISS, as part of a future commercial platform. But the key is that the way we're running [the] station today, as far as the government role — the administration would like for that to be transitioned to a more commercial model." 

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.