In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law that established NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise off Earth: “The general welfare of the United States of America requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.”
For human spaceflight, early commercialization efforts sputtered. Plans to privatize the operating of NASA’s space shuttles were shelved after the loss of Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the fading years of Communism that was farther ahead of NASA in selling access to space. In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese television reporter, flew on a Soyuz rocket to the Soviet space station Mir. The trip was paid for by his employer, the Tokyo Broadcasting System.
At the same time, a group of British companies sponsored a contest to send the first British citizen to space. The winner was Helen Sharman, a chemist. She visited Mir in 1991. At the end of the decade, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia leased Mir to MirCorp, a Russian-American commercial venture.
An American, Jeffrey Manber, ran MirCorp, and he envisioned turning the space station into a hub for tourism and entertainment. NBC commissioned a reality television show that would have been produced by Mark Burnett, the creator of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”
“If you wanted to work with the capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians,” Mr. Manber joked in an interview in 2018. “If you wanted to work with the socialists, you worked with NASA.”
MirCorp’s dreams were not realized, because NASA insisted that Russia scuttle Mir and focus on the International Space Station instead.
To the consternation of NASA officials, Russia sold trips to the International Space Station. Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first Russian-hosted tourist on the station, in 2001. But Russia stopped taking private travelers in 2009 when, with the impending retirement of the space shuttles, NASA needed to buy available seats on Russian rockets for its astronauts to get and from the space station.
With SpaceX now able to provide transportation for American astronauts and NASA no longer a paying customer, Russia has resumed selling rides to the space station. The most recent trips, at the end of 2021, were a Russian director and actress shooting a movie and a Japanese billionaire, Yusaku Maezawa, and his assistant.
In the last few years, NASA has opened up to the idea of space tourism. It hopes that private companies will be able to launch commercial bases into orbit to eventually replace the International Space Station. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often spoke of NASA’s being one customer out of many and of how that would greatly reduce costs for NASA.
But for NASA to be one customer of many, there have to be other customers. Eventually, other applications like pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing may finally come to fruition.
But for now, the most promising market is wealthy people who pay to visit space themselves.
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