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NASA looks to sell real estate on the space station

For sale: condo, great view, management on premises, can be used for business or retail space, price negotiable. An ad like that might draw a rush of buyers in New York or San Francisco, but NASA is finding out that it’s not exactly a seller’s market when it comes to hawking room on the international space station (ISS).

At NASA’s Habitation Module Commercialization Conference this summer, the space agency floated the possibility that one or more commercial partners would own and maintain the crew habitation module-essentially the living quarters-on the space station. NASA would lease space. While the government has previously leased privately owned assets on communications satellites, there has never been corporate ownership on manned space vehicles. However, the ISS is likely to be different. In fact, the Canadian Space Agency has already turned over allotted experimental space on the station to an American company, SPACEHAB.

Construction of the space station is scheduled to begin next year, and work on the module is over budget and behind schedule. Part of the problem with the living quarters is that NASA wants to replace a proposed aluminum cylinder with an inflatable module that has three times the volume. But last year Congress nixed the idea. To build the module, NASA needs to find at least $200 million.

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The agency’s sales pitch goes something like this. Think of the possibilities: You could lease living space to government users and, someday, tourists. Profitable experiments and manufacturing in space may finally materialize in the next few years, and eager entrepreneurs will surely be banging on the space station’s hatchway looking for room. What’s more, you could lease the module for filming of advertising and even movies.

Some potential buyers, though, are not sold. Attendees at this summer’s conference questioned, among other things, NASA’s willingness to give up even partial control of its pet project. “If NASA wants a sincere dialogue, it must be as a customer and not as an owner,” says Robert Bigelow, an investor at the conference.

But NASA is committed to making ISS attractive to businesses. Says NASA’s Dan Tam, “On Earth, it has been demonstrated time and time again that with market support, private industry can do a better job than the government. We expect the same will be true in space.”

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