In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law establishing NASA to encourage private extraterrestrial enterprise was amended: “The public welfare of the United States of America requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration seek and encourage, to the greatest extent possible, the maximum commercial use of space.”
For human spaceflight, early marketing efforts faltered. Plans to privatize the operation of NASA’s space shuttles were put on hold after the loss of the Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the waning communism years that was ahead of NASA in selling access to space. In 1990, Japanese TV reporter Toyohiro Akiyama flew on a Soyuz rocket to the Soviet Mir space station. The trip was paid for by his employer, Tokyo Broadcasting System.
At the same time, a group of British companies sponsored a competition to send the first British citizen into space. The winner was Helen Sharman, a chemist. She visited Mir in 1991. At the end of the decade, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia leased Mir to Mercorp, a Russian-American business.
An American, Jeffrey Manber, ran MirCorp, and he envisioned turning the space station into a center for tourism and entertainment. NBC commissioned a reality TV show that would have been produced by Mark Burnett, creator of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice.”
“If you wanted to work with capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians. If you wanted to work with socialists, you worked with NASA,” Mr. Manber joked in a 2018 interview.
Mercorp’s dreams did not come true, because NASA insisted that Russia fly the Mir shuttle and focus on the International Space Station instead.
To the consternation of NASA officials, Russia has sold flights to the International Space Station. Dennis Tito, an American businessman, was the first Russian tourist to host him at the station, in 2001. But Russia stopped taking private travelers in 2009 when NASA, with the space shuttles’ retirement date approaching, needed to purchase available seats on Russian rockets For astronauts to get to 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 flights to the space station. The most recent flights were at the end of 2021 Russian director and actress shooting a movie And the Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawaand his assistant.
In the past few years, NASA has opened up about 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, Administrator of NASA during the Trump AdministrationHe often talked about NASA being one customer out of many and how that would significantly reduce costs for NASA.
But for NASA to be one customer for many, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero-gravity manufacturing may eventually pay off.
But at the moment, the most promising market is the wealthy who pay to visit the space themselves.