NASA astronauts are going for a walk in space this week to install a new parking spot on the International Space Station, but in just a few years, the agency plans to abandon the station.
The space agency is seeking a commercial owner to take over the space station sometime in the mid-2020s as it continues to plan for a manned Mars mission, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator Bill Hill told Digital Trends.
“NASA’s trying to develop economic development in low-earth orbit. Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-earth orbit.”
The space station is already living on borrowed time. It was scheduled to be deorbited this year, but the Obama administration extended federal funding for the ISS through to 2024 so it could help conduct research for a manned Mars mission.
So far, NASA hasn’t announced a buyer for the most expensive real estate in history, but the obvious choices would be SpaceX or Boeing, both of which are scheduled to start sending astronauts into orbit starting next year.
Their presence at the ISS is why NASA astronauts Jeff Williams and Kate Rubins are going space walking this week to finish installing a new docking adapter.
Since NASA decommissioned the space shuttle program in 2011, the agency has been paying Russia millions to take its astronauts into orbit. SpaceX has been running resupply missions to the ISS since 2012, and starting next year, the space travel company will join Boeing in breaking Russia’s monopoly on space taxis.
The influx of commercial operators in space is what allows NASA to back away from the ISS as it continues to plan for a manned mission to Mars.
SpaceX has already completed nine resupply mission to the ISS, but CEO Elon Musk seems more intent on colonizing Mars than building more space stations. Boeing, on the other hand, has made no plans to reach Mars so they could be a strong possibility as a buyer.
There’s also a chance the space station could be acquired by Deep Space Industries, an asteroid mining company that plans to launch their first spacecraft by 2020. The company plans on using water found on asteroids in the form of ice as fuel. It hopes to sell the fuel to other space travel companies operating in orbit, but to do so, it will first need a location to set up its gas station.
Other contenders for the most coveted real estate available to mankind are Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada, both of which have booked space taxi contracts with NASA to ferry supplies to the space station for the next eight years.
The two space travel companies have also won contracts to design and build deep space habitats for NASA astronauts on long haul missions.
The commercial space taxi contracts open space that was previously used for cargo, so NASA plans to add a seventh astronaut to the crew of the International Space Station to increase research opportunities in low-earth orbit.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency is backing away from its role in the space station; the agency just announced it’s considering reducing its crew from three to two, according to RT.
“If you look at the original plan, it envisioned the launch of Multipurpose Laboratory Module to the ISS, and only then a crew increase. But MLM launch was postponed several times, while the crew nevertheless was increased.”
Russia also has some stake in the real estate on the ISS, and it’s not clear what that would mean for a space station sale.
What do you think of NASA’s plan to sell off the International Space Station to a commercial investor?
[Photo by NASA/Getty Images]