As the International Space Station reaches the end of its planned life in 2024, NASA is looking for ways to fund expensive but necessary renovations to continue the use of the station. NASA announced last week a new program to allow private companies to attach hardware to the space station and run experiments, serving a dual purpose of creating new science experiments and investing in the space station’s future. A number of private companies have already expressed interest. Bigelow Aerospace, a Nevada firm with the goal of creating modular living habitats on space stations and other planets, has been seeking permission to attach a permanent module to the space station for years.
This new initiative should create new innovation from private companies whose technology will be needed to help NASA or other space agencies find their way to Mars. NASA plans to land humans on Mars by the mid-2030s, and the private company SpaceX hopes to begin a Mars colony by 2024.
As private companies like SpaceX have developed a business model for contracting space research, NASA has looked to move into the fold. Public-private partnerships have been funding some aspects of the ISS since its inception. Any company can pay to send and return small items to and from the space station, for instance, though extended stays have not been possible until this partnership. If the current costs to send something to the ISS are any indication, the cost of mounting hardware on the ISS will be prohibitively expensive for all but a few organizations. The ISS’s struggle with funding has existed since its conception. It debuted in 1998 after years of budget overruns and missed deadlines. Two years ago, its original end of life date of 2020 was extended to 2024. This extension was funded by a federal budget allocation from the White House, something that is not expected to happen again with President Obama leaving office in January.
These budget woes have forced the ISS and NASA to get creative. This private partnership plan is considered one of the more promising solutions. NASA expects to receive bids to experiment on the ISS from companies like Bigelow and SpaceX, but also researchers in academia and elsewhere through partnerships with these companies. This is an example of NASA’s pragmatism, something that many critics think will stand in the way of a manned mission to Mars in the coming decades. NASA seems to be acknowledging that todays economic and political climate will require private companies to lead the way.