WASHINGTON • After 15 years as a pure research laboratory, the International Space Station (ISS) might be ready for business.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is soliciting ideas from private enterprise on ways to use the orbiting lab for commercial purposes, taking another tentative step in the United States' efforts to create a marketplace in space.
Nasa posed the request as a way to engender "out-of-the-box concepts" for the space station, since it says it has become clear that "companies don't think they can go straight to a commercial space station without continuing to take advantage of the ISS to test the waters and see what really will sell or where there may be issues".
"Commercial companies continue to approach Nasa to use the ISS in ways we never imagined," the agency said in a blog post accompanying its request for information.
The solicitation is designed "to determine private market interest in using unique ISS capabilities that have limited availability".
It's an opportunity to gather new ideas from people/industry for future opportunities on the space station.
NASA'S TABATHA THOMPSON, on soliciting commercial ideas for the ISS.
Nasa also requested ideas on operating models, contract structures and other sustainable business plans for future commercial endeavours 400km above the planet.
"It's an opportunity to gather new ideas from people/industry for future opportunities on the space station," Nasa spokesman Tabatha Thompson said in an e-mail.
Nasa stressed that, for the moment, it just wants to hear ideas. It does not have a budget to help spur any proposed projects, or plans to release them for public perusal.
It received 11 submissions "from a broad range of respondents including individuals, small companies and large companies", ISS programme division director Sam Scimemi said in an e-mail.
Orbital ATK, which has a Nasa contract to ferry supplies to the ISS, confirmed it had submitted information, which it declined to reveal.
The space station is "emblematic" of how government-funded technologies are migrating to the private sector, said Mr Frank Culbertson Jr, president of Orbital ATK's Space Systems Group and a former Nasa astronaut. He spent four months aboard the ISS in 2001.
"The station is now much more affordable as a research and development platform for commercial companies," Mr Culbertson said in a statement.
"As an astronaut who lived aboard the ISS myself, I am particularly interested in human research beyond low earth orbit and the use of the space station as a test bed for technology demonstrations that will eventually support Nasa's increasingly ambitious missions to deep space."
The ISS will operate until at least 2024 since Nasa agreed in 2014 to keep the lab open for an additional decade. The space station was originally scheduled to shut down in 2020. During an almost six-hour spacewalk on Friday, astronauts Kate Rubins and Jeff Williams installed the first of two new docking adapters to allow for planned US-launched crew missions managed by Boeing and SpaceX.
Nasa opened its latest round of submissions earlier this month.