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NASA Wants to Rocket Even More Private Astronauts to Space

Got a spare $55 million laying around?

Four private astronauts pose in suits inside a SpaceX capsule.
The crew of Ax-1 poses inside a SpaceX capsule.

NASA has a message for aspiring private astronauts: Come on up. On Wednesday, the space agency announced it's seeking proposals for two new private astronaut missions to the International Space Station "as part of the agency's efforts to open space to more people than ever before." Those "more people" will probably need deep pockets.

The missions -- which could last up to two weeks -- would be targeted for 2023 and 2024. The proposals will need to involve a US commercial spacecraft that would carry the crew to the ISS. As of now, that means a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule and a Falcon 9 rocket. Boeing is still working on getting its Starliner spacecraft ready for humans.

While the ISS has hosted space tourists before, a new era of private astronaut missions kicked off in earnest in April when Axiom Space launched the Ax-1 mission to the ISS in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule. A former NASA astronaut commanded the mission, leading a crew of three paying travelers. The price was reportedly $55 million (£48 million, AU$81 million) per astronaut.

Axiom signed up with NASA for a second private mission, Ax-2, which is expected to launch in 2023. NASA currently requires all private missions to have a former NASA astronaut with space experience as commander. 

The call for new proposals shows NASA's dedication to expanding commercial opportunities in space. "We recognize the importance of NASA's continued support, and are dedicated to working with industry to identify areas where our expertise and unique capabilities support expansion, as with private astronaut missions," said Angela Hart, manager of the commercial low-Earth orbit program.

NASA's vision for low-Earth orbit involves private companies taking the lead on developing space stations and transportation so NASA can focus its energies on big-vision endeavors like returning humans to the moon and eventually sending a crew to Mars. Essentially, NASA wants to become a customer, one cog in a busy orbital economy.