June 25, 2007

NASA Wants to Open Station to Outsiders

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- If all goes as planned, part of the international space station will host research experiments from outsiders after it's completed in three years, NASA officials said Monday.

NASA is in talks with several government agencies, most notably the National Institutes of Health, and private businesses that want to conduct research in the microgravity laboratory orbiting 220 miles above Earth.

NASA and its 15 partner nations, including Russia, Canada, Japan and European countries, plan to finish construction of the space station in 2010, when the U.S. space shuttles are grounded and NASA focuses its manned spaceflight program on returning to the moon in an Orion spacecraft.

For the past two years, much of the science at the space station has been oriented toward returning astronauts to the moon, and even going on to Mars.

"We didn't need the entire capacity of the space station to do exploration-related research," said Mark Uhran, NASA's assistant associate administrator of the space station. "So the capacity that was freed up after we restructured our program is now available to other agencies or private sector companies."

The space station's first section was launched in 1998 and it has been inhabited continuously since 2000 by Russian, U.S. and European crew mates. By 2009, the station's three-member crew is expected to grow to six people.

The station was designed to last until at least 2015, but managers now believe it could operate as late as 2022.

"What probably drives the life is ... probably how much the space station is utilized," said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations.

Once it is completed, it will cost about $1.5 billion a year to run the space station. About half the space station's U.S. section would be available for the use by outsiders, who wouldn't have to pay a fee for its use.

NASA's plans to open up the space station to outsiders, though, depend on whether private companies build spaceships that could travel to the outpost as a replacement for the grounded shuttles after 2010. NASA has given $500 million in seed money to two private companies to build spacecraft and has signed agreements with others.

"The transportation system is a critical factor," Uhran said.


On the Net:

NASA at http://www.nasa.gov