NASA official warns private sector: We’re moving on from low-Earth orbit

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations, at the agency's headquarters in 2013.

NASA has flown the International Space Station for the last 15 years, and during that time it has offered private industry a pretty sweet deal. The space agency pays transportation costs to and from the station for experiments and provides astronaut time to tend to that research. And when NASA needed new spacecraft to get its astronauts on board the station, it paid private companies to develop their own vehicles for that purpose. NASA, in some sense, has become the Chamber of Commerce for outer space.

But all good things must come to an end, so the free ride in low Earth orbit for private industry may stop as soon as a decade from now. “We’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, last week. “Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA’s vision is we’re trying to move out.”

Gerstenmaier made those comments during a meeting of NASA’s advisory council in early December at Johnson Space Center, which Ars attended. The comments are striking because, while the remarks reflect NASA’s desire to see US commercial industries thrive in the space around Earth, it is not the agency’s top priority to ensure that happens. Gerstenmaier said NASA is committed to moving humans deeper into space to the vicinity of the Moon, an area known as cislunar space.

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