NASA is considering selling seats on the spacecraft that will ferry its astronauts to the International Space Station, offering rides to the public while opening another line of revenue as the agency attempts to broaden its appeal.
On several occasions, Russia has flown wealthy people who paid millions of dollars for the ride to space. And a trio of private companies backed by billionaires is also looking to fly tourists out of the atmosphere. But except for a couple of rare exceptions, such as Christa McAuliffe, the teacher who was killed when the space Shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA has not allowed private citizens on its rockets.
“Just like in the early days of aviation with barnstorming, these initial activities will help build the infrastructure and the foundation that can lead to future innovations that, frankly, we cannot imagine right now,” said Michael Gold, the vice president of regulatory and policy at Maxar Technologies, who is leading the advisory council’s policy reform effort.
The proposal, backed Friday by a NASA advisory subcommittee, is in the nascent stage and is part of moves by the agency to better insert itself into the public consciousness by working with the private sector.
The proposals would have to be approved by the entire advisory council and then forwarded to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
Friday’s meeting comes two months after Bridenstine announced he was forming the committee and tasking it to look at how the agency could better partner with industry. He said that he wants NASA and its astronauts “embedded into the American culture.”
On Friday, he reiterated the point, saying: “The reality is, we’re in a new era now.”
In addition to selling seats, the space agency is exploring the prospect of allowing its logo to be used for commercial purposes and allowing its astronauts to appear in commercials that would boost the agency’s brand.
The move comes as the White House is seeking to end direct funding of the International Space Station by 2025 and turn over the orbiting laboratory to a commercial entity. That plan has been met with fierce congressional resistance and questions about how it would be achieved and funded.
But selling seats could be a small step toward achieving that goal. NASA could charge millions of dollars for the rides on the spacecraft developed by Boeing and SpaceX to fly crews to the space station. The revenue generated by those sales would be used to help the agency “facilitate commercialization of space platforms in and beyond” low Earth orbit, according to language adopted by the advisory group.
The group is also exploring how the agency could loosen some of the rules that prohibit NASA from endorsing particular products or services. It had talked about the possibility of selling naming rights for its rockets. While Bridenstine said it would be “a heavy lift,” on Friday the committee approved language recommending “space-based promotional activities” that “could enhance NASA’s public profile and encourage youth to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”
It also took a step toward getting its logo used more often. Today, NASA generally doesn’t put its logo on the rockets that fly cargo to the space station or its science experiments to space for fear that it would be seen as an endorsement of the rocket company.
“There has been a presumption of no,” Gold said.