Assembled over 23 years, by a coalition of 15 countries, and at a cost of $100 billion, the International Space Station represents humanity's most ambitious and longest-lasting foray into space so far. Fact is, the ISS probably shouldn't even be in space anymore -- when the project began in 1998, the space station was expected to have a service life of only 15 years.    

And yet, ISS is still operating ... and evolving. One day soon, it might even become a home for private business and investment.

Astronaut looking at Earth out of a huge window on a space station

Image source: Getty Images.

Accepting reservations now

To promote this goal, about a year ago, the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration announced it will open up ISS to private astronauts who want to stay aboard the space station for as long as 30 days at a stretch. NASA explained at the time that it is specifically inviting visitors who want to engage in "approved commercial and marketing activities" to help develop "a sustainable low-Earth orbit economy," including  "manufacturing, production or development of a commercial application" in space.

And NASA could get the ball rolling as early as next year.

As the space agency explained in a press release last week, it has just signed an order authorizing private space company Axiom Space to embark upon the first-ever entirely "private astronaut mission" to ISS. Dubbed "Axiom Mission 1" (Ax-1), it will see the company send four private astronauts -- former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, entrepreneur Larry Connor, and investors Mark Pathy and Eytan Stibbe (of Canada and Israel, respectively) -- to ISS aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon rocket. There, the four businessmen-astronauts will live and work in the U.S. segment of the space station for approximately eight days.  

B.Y.O.B. to ISS -- "bring your own bed"

Now, because living space is at a premium aboard ISS, "there aren't any astronaut crew quarters for us," admits Ax-1 mission commander Lopez-Alegria. So ISS's newest residents will probably just have to bed down wherever they can find a place to float their sleeping bags. For this privilege, each entrepreneur-astronaut will pay $55 million.  

That's an interesting number, by the way. When American businessman Dennis Tito hopped a ride to ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket back in 2001 and became the first "private astronaut" ever, the cost of his ticket was reported to be just $20 million. Seven such private astronaut missions later, the cost of a ticket hasn't gone down at all -- but rather, nearly tripled!

That's a trend that someone should probably try to reverse if space tourism is ever to evolve into the growth industry that its advocates say it will be.    

But at least Axiom's price will be all-inclusive. As the company advises, "any and all necessary costs are part of Axiom's ticket price," from the price SpaceX charges for shuttle service to and from the space station, to the $35,000 a night NASA charges for accommodation. Clearly, though, it's the cost of the rocket rides that make up most of the cost -- so this entire project looks like it will be more of a revenue generator for SpaceX than for NASA or Axiom.

What comes next

And that's ... OK. As Axiom explains, Ax-1 is a precursor mission to the company's ultimate goal of developing an entirely privately owned space station.  

Though Axiom was only established five years ago, according to records from S&P Global Market Intelligence, it has plans to begin building a space real estate empire before it reaches age 10. Beginning with Ax-1 in 2022, Axiom intends to start up a regular schedule of brokering "private and national astronaut flights to ISS at a rate of up to two per year." With each mission completed, Axiom will gain a bit more experience with space station operations, and with each ticket sold, add a bit more capital to its business. And by 2024, the company hopes to have its own space station modules built. These, Axiom proposes to attach to ISS to provide additional living and workspace for its private astronaut passengers -- including, one hopes, some beds.

And at some point in the future, when ISS does finally get retired from active use, Axiom intends to detach these modules "to form the world's first free-flying, privately developed, internationally available space station -- the central node of a near-future network of research, manufacturing, and commerce in LEO."  

But it all starts with Ax-1. And it all starts in January 2022.