In 1984, during the Reagan administration, the law established by NASA was amended to encourage private enterprise outside of Earth: “The general welfare of the United States of America requires that the National Administration of Aeronautics and Space seeks and encourages, to the fullest extent possible, the most complete commercial use of space. “
For human spaceflight, the first marketing efforts spread. Plans to privatize NASA’s space shuttle operation were suspended after the loss of the Challenger in 1986.
Instead, it was the Soviet space program of the faded years of communism that was most ahead of NASA in the sale of access to space. In 1990, Toyohiro Akiyama, a Japanese television reporter, flew a Soyuz rocket on 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. He visited Mir in 1991. At the end of the decade, after the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia leased Mir to MirCorp, a Russian-American trading company.
An American, Jeffrey Manber, ran MirCorp, and imagined turning the space station into a center of tourism and entertainment. NBC commissioned 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 capitalists in space in the 1990s, you worked with the Russians,” he joked. Manber in an interview in 2018. “If you wanted to work with the Socialists, you worked with NASA.”
MirCorp’s dreams did not come true, because NASA insisted that Russia sink Mir and concentrate on the International Space Station.
To the dismay of NASA officials, Russia sold trips to the International Space Station. Dennis Tito, an American businessman, was the first Russian tourist to visit the station in 2001. But Russia stopped hosting private travelers in 2009 when, with the imminent withdrawal of space shuttles, NASA he needed to buy seats available to Russian rockets for his astronauts to go in and out of the space station.
With SpaceX now able to provide transportation to American astronauts and NASA is no longer a paying customer, Russia has resumed the sale of space station travel. Most recent trips, in late 2021, were a Russian director and actress shooting a film 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 will be able to launch commercial bases to eventually replace the International Space Station. Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator during the Trump administration, often talked about NASA being a customer among many and how this would greatly reduce NASA’s costs.
But for NASA to be a customer of many, there must be other customers. Finally, other applications such as pharmaceutical research or zero gravity manufacturing may come to fruition.
But for now, the most promising market is the rich people who pay to visit the space themselves.