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In 1984, under the Reagan administration, the law that created 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 seeks and encourages, where possible, the fullest commercial use of space.
For manned spaceflight, early commercialization efforts failed. Plans to privatize NASA space shuttle operations were abandoned after the loss of Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program in the last years of communism that was furthest ahead of NASA in selling access to space. In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese television journalist, flew on a Soyuz rocket to the Soviet Mir space station. The trip was paid for by his employer, the 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 breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia leased Mir to MirCorp, a Russian-American trading company.
An American, Jeffrey Manber, ran MirCorp and planned to turn the space station into a hub for tourism and entertainment. NBC has ordered a reality TV 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 a 2018 interview. “If you wanted to work with the socialists, you worked with NASA. .”
MirCorp’s dreams did not come true, as NASA insisted that Russia scuttle Mir and instead focus on the International Space Station.
To the dismay of NASA officials, Russia sold out trips to the International Space Station. Dennis Tito, an American entrepreneur, was the first tourist hosted by Russia on the station, in 2001. But Russia stopped taking private travelers in 2009 when, with the imminent retirement of space shuttles, NASA had to buy available seats on Russian rockets for its astronauts to get to and from the space station.
With SpaceX now able to transport American astronauts and NASA no longer a paying customer, Russia has resumed selling trips 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 recent years, NASA has opened up to the idea of space tourism. He hopes that private companies can launch commercial bases into orbit to eventually replace the International Space Station. Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator under the Trump administration, has often spoken about NASA being just one customer among many and how that would significantly reduce costs for NASA.
But for NASA to be one customer among many, there must be other customers. Eventually, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or weightless manufacturing could finally materialize.
But for now, the most promising market is for wealthy people who pay themselves to visit space.