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Starliner and space station
An artist’s conception shows a Boeing Starliner space taxi approaching the International Space Station. (Boeing Illustration)

NASA already has committed billions of dollars to procuring regularly scheduled rides to and from the International Space Station from commercial space taxi operators — but now it says it’s interested in buying short-term trips as well.

The proposed arrangement, detailed on Tuesday, is aimed at giving a boost to the commercialization of space operations in low Earth orbit, as well as to NASA’s drive to send astronauts to the moon by 2024. It also makes the line dividing government-funded and privately funded space efforts even fuzzier.

SpaceX and Boeing are both building spacecraft to serve as taxis to the space station: Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner is due to go through an uncrewed test flight to the orbital outpost next month, and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon is slated for an in-flight test of its launch abort system sometime in the next month or so.

Both space taxis are expected to carry crew starting early next year, assuming that they win NASA’s clearance.

Once the spacecraft are certified, NASA will execute contracts for a series of regular flights to and from the space station, to support crew rotations every six months or so. SpaceX and Boeing also have the option of selling extra seats on those flights to private customers.

In addition, NASA’s commercialization plan would let those companies plan up to two extra missions per year to the space station, for stays lasting as long as 30 days. The privately funded astronauts would have to pay a multimillion-dollar fare to the taxi operator — plus a reimbursement to NASA for space station expenses, estimated at $35,000 a day.

The newly issued pre-solicitation notice focuses on the extra, privately organized missions: NASA says it’d be interested in buying one of the seats on that kind of mission, in order to further its research goals for future trips to the moon and Mars.

“NASA has identified a requirement to use missions of varying length on which it collects standard data to establish profiles of human physiological, behavioral, and psychological variables of importance for ensuring astronaut health and performance during future long-duration deep space missions,” the space agency explained in a news release. “Private astronaut mission opportunities NASA identified as part of its low-Earth orbit economy plan are up to 30 days, within the time frame necessary to perform research and collect critical data to build a comprehensive human spaceflight physiological profile.”

This week’s announcement merely serves to give notice that NASA is interested in the idea. It’s up to the organizers of future private-astronaut missions to let NASA know what they’re scheduling, and whether they’re willing to meet NASA’s requirements — for example, a four-person limit on space taxi occupancy.

Right now, Boeing and SpaceX are focusing on getting their taxis up and running for the missions that are dedicated to NASA’s space station crew rotations, so it could be a year or more before they schedule the extra missions they’re entitled to offer.

Nevertheless, the idea sparked a lively discussion today when it was mentioned on Twitter by NASA’s Doug Comstock, who’s acting as a liaison for commercial crew activities in low Earth orbit:

NASA’s proposed arrangement underscores the view that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner capsules really are space taxis — a concept that one-time NASA Administrator Mike Griffin discussed 20 years ago in congressional testimony when he was Orbital Sciences’ chief technical officer.

Nowadays, maybe calling them Uber vehicles for spaceflight would be closer to the mark. If we stick with that analogy, you could say that NASA just wants to be able to get in on ordering Uber Pool rides as well as reserving an UberX for itself.

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