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Sunita Williams
NASA astronaut Sunita Williams wears a SpaceX spacesuit as she sits in a mockup for a Crew Dragon spaceship. (SpaceX Photo)

RENTON, Wash. — When NASA’s Phil McAlister worked out the contracts with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, he made sure they could make some money on the side.

The contracts contain a clause that allows the companies to propose putting a private spaceflight participant in one of the extra seats aboard SpaceX’s Dragon craft or Boeing’s Starliner spaceship, said McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters.

“Contractually, we put a hook in there,” McAlister said today at the Space Frontier Foundation’s annual NewSpace conference in Renton. “I made sure it was there. It was very important for that capability to be in the contract.”

The clause kicks in once SpaceX and Boeing get their space taxis certified for flight, which could happen as early as next year.

Paying passengers could then be added to the four-person crews that the companies are contractually required to carry for NASA.

Phil McAlister
NASA’s Phil McAlister talks about commercial human spaceflight at the NewSpace conference. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

“If Boeing and SpaceX have a spaceflight participant that they want to put on one of our flights, they propose that to NASA, we evaluate it … we’ve got to make sure that the space station can accommodate it,” McAlister said. “But the contractual ability to do that is there.”

Previous passengers, including Seattle-area billionaire and two-time spaceflier Charles Simonyi, went through months of training at Russia’s Star City cosmonaut complex. Don’t expect NASA to do likewise at Johnson Space Center in Texas.

“The companies are supposed to do the training,” McAlister said. “They are on the hook. … NASA might have some reimbursables to help with that, because we’ve got a lot of infrastructure. But they are responsible for training. That was another key thing for commercial crew. I wanted the government as much as possible out of that business, right? So we wanted end-to-end services.”

One of the potential buyers for those extra seats is Texas-based Axiom Space. This month, Axiom said it’s offering a $55 million travel package that includes 15 weeks of training and a 10-day orbital stay. Axiom has said the trips could start as early as 2020 — at first to the International Space Station, and eventually to its own standalone outpost in Earth orbit.

NASA’s current development schedule calls for SpaceX and Boeing to send uncrewed space taxis to the space station in August, followed by a crewed demonstration flight in December, and then certification. That schedule is widely expected to slip, however. During his talk, McAlister said only that crewed flights would begin “really soon.”

“I’m alternatively excited and anxious,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Yay!’ … ‘Oh my God!’ ”

Between Boeing and SpaceX, eight crew-capable spacecraft are currently in production, McAlister said. He figures that the price per seat averages out to $58 million, compared with the roughly $80 million that the Russians have charged NASA for each seat on a Soyuz spacecraft.

Will the price come down further as commercial spaceflight takes hold? McAlister pointed to the example of climbing expeditions to Mount Everest. In the 1940s, Everest expeditions cost in the range of $350,000. Today, the equivalent cost can go as low as $35,000 (although the total almost certainly amounts to much more when extras are factored in).

McAlister said statistics show that, on average, Everest climbs have become safer as well as cheaper. The same trend could apply as commercial spaceflight becomes more prevalent, he said.

“When we started commercial crew, that was one of the big areas of concern: putting human lives into the hands of the private sector,” McAlister said. “We do this all the time. There are markets all the time where the private sector is in charge of human safety-critical operations. It can work out just fine, sometimes even better.”

To be sure, spaceflight is riskier and costlier than mountain climbing, and governments have historically kept virtually exclusive control over the use of spacecraft. It’ll take a while for the market to mature for companies like SpaceX, Boeing and their future competitors. For those reasons, McAlister doesn’t expect the change to occur overnight.

“It’s going to take longer than we all hoped, but we are on the way,” he said. “The historical constraints to this market are about to change, and I think when that happens, people are going to find different new things to do up there.”

The first space tourists may have been satisfied just to hang out on the space station for 10 days or so, but McAlister said next-generation space passengers could touch off an upward spiral of activity.

“They’re  going to figure out new things that they want to do. Those new things are going to attract more people,” he said. “More people, falling costs, bigger market … I think it’s going to really feed on itself. I can’t say for sure, but I can see a lot of the same attributes in the Everest model about to come into play for commercial human spaceflight.”

Update for 11:34 a.m. PT July 28: I’ve recharacterized Axiom Space’s potential role as that of a buyer rather than a purchasing agent.

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