NEW YORK • Becoming a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) astronaut is far harder than getting into Harvard, but soon, ordinary people - at least rich ones with tens of millions of dollars to blow on a big vacation - will be able to buy a rocket ride into orbit.
Nasa announced on Friday that for the first time, it is allowing private citizens to fly, if not to the Moon, at least to the International Space Station, the only place where people currently live off the planet.
Nasa is not transforming into a space travel agency. Private companies will have to pay it about US$35,000 (S$47,700) a night per passenger to sleep in the station's beds and use its amenities, including air, water, the Internet and the toilet. The companies would charge much more to cover rocket flights to and from space, and to make a profit.
Nasa's chief financial officer Jeff Dewit said at a press conference on Friday that private travellers will first pay an estimated US$58 million (S$79 million) for a round-trip ticket for the 30-day trip.
Nasa will provide two privately funded trips to the station per year, each lasting up to 30 days, and the first mission could be as early as 2020.
"This is a hugely different way for us to do business," Mr William H. Gerstenmaier, Nasa's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said during the news conference.
Nasa officials said the goal was an eventual transition to orbital outposts fully operated by private companies, but there was no set date.
"We're hoping new capabilities will develop that can one day take over for the space station," said Ms Robyn Gatens, deputy space station director for Nasa.
Among the agency's other announcements on Friday: It will allow some ventures that are purely for profit, without requiring some educational or research component. That could include flying trinkets to space and then selling them on Earth.
Later this month, Nasa will seek proposals for adding a module to the space station that is owned and operated by a private company, and it will select a plan by the end of the year.
While pricey, the revenues generated by space tourism for Nasa would not come close to covering the costs of operating the space station, which are one of the agency's greatest expenses. It currently spends US$3 billion to US$4 billion a year, or more than US$8 million a day.
US President Donald Trump criticised Nasa for aiming to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024 and urged the space agency to focus instead on "much bigger" initiatives like going to Mars, undercutting his previous support for the lunar initiative.
"For all of the money we are spending, Nasa should not be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago," the President wrote on Twitter.