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NASA increases ISS prices to commercial customers by 700%

On February 25th NASA quietly announced that it was increasing the prices it charges for private commercial payloads to ISS sevenfold, immediately putting some customers out of business.

In the statement, published with little fanfare on the agency’s website, NASA said it was updating that price list “to reflect full reimbursement for the value of NASA resources.” The decision to do so, NASA said, was based on “discussions with stakeholders, the current market growth, and in anticipation of future commercial entities capable of providing similar services.”

By removing the subsidy, the prices of those services went up significantly. The cost to transport one kilogram of cargo up to the station, known as “upmass,” went from $3,000 to $20,000. The cost to bring that one kilogram back down from the station, “downmass,” went from $6,000 to $40,000. One hour of crew member time, previously $17,500, is now $130,000.

The sudden change in prices, which took effect immediately, took some ISS users by surprise. An executive with one company, who spoke on background because that company is still evaluating the impacts of the pricing change, was not aware of NASA’s decision to raise prices until contacted by SpaceNews.

“NASA has not done a good job communicating with the stakeholders,” said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks. “We are in discussions with customers and suddenly we are being notified of a major increase.” That sudden increase in prices, he said, forced Nanoracks to suspend discussions with two potential customers, who he said were “priced out of their budget” by the increase.

Note that NASA’s statement apparently contained a lie. It claimed the agency talked with “stakeholders,” but apparently those stakeholders knew nothing about it until it happened.

I strongly suspect this is a Biden administration decision, not one from NASA. Democratic Party politicians don’t see government as a servant of the people, but as a tool to rule them. A private industry is beginning to sprout using government resources in space, and rather than encourage its growth they instead want to squeeze as much cash from it as possible.

Moreover, why is NASA charging anything for bringing cargo to ISS? They don’t provide the transportation, launch companies like SpaceX and ULA do. The only appropriate charge NASA should be charging is rental at the station.

If this was a NASA decision solely and Trump was in power, I would expect it to be soon canceled. Under Biden there is no chance. More likely that administration either endorsed it or imposed it.

What this means is that future commercial flights will soon shift away from ISS. I expect Axiom to work hard to get its station modules launched and separated from ISS as quickly as possible. I also expect to see more independent Dragon manned tourist missions, like the one planned for this fall, that do not dock with the station.

In fact, here is a thought that I think has already entered Elon Musk’s brain. In the next year SpaceX is likely going to do its first Starship orbital test flight. Why not put a test habitable module on board that can be used by tourists at a reasonable price? There is money to be made here, especially because NASA is gouging its customers and there is plenty of margin to undercut the agency’s absurd prices.

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35 comments

  • Cotour

    Q: How might this edict apparently from the administration benefit China?

    I think everything that this administration does must be put under this specific political microscope lens.

  • V-Man

    A Lunar Starship (no fins, no TPS) could also serve as a fine orbital workshop if not moved to the Moon… Rent bench space and rooms for staffers. It’s bigger than the ISS!

    Could a Starship make it to orbit with only three Raptors (or heck, just one) burning longer? That would make it cheaper. Or send a second Starship with a multi-port docking module for the station’s nose and some solar panels in the cargo hold, and it then brings back the Raptors. Instant space station.

  • Ron Desmarais

    Would this present an opportunity for Bigalow? Are they still a viable company since I remember reading that they laid everyone off around the start of the Covid panic?

  • Jeff Wright

    I would have ISS free, but would would have a board of astronauts pick which concept best fits the stations capabilities. Promising tech then get a free flyer mini-station for production-with a percentage profit on the back to keep ISS expanding. The free flyer remains close to ISS for interferometry. Everyone wins.

  • John hare

    @Jeff,
    Except for those that don’t follow the party line of the board. And those that could have used the products of those frozen out by PC.

  • Alton

    Stakeholders ++ Progressives Imposing their will and greed on ALL Others (99% serfs).

  • Alton

    Starship mods plus Bigalow designs flying in orbit does the testing and certifications for interplanetary travel.

  • Jeff Wright

    To John-I would have the board be independant and tech minded. Also-only engineers should hold office

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Any government “board” would be required to follow the current regime’s policies. Including gender studies, blacklisting conservatives, etc., etc. No thanks.

    Let NASA and their ilk have the ISS. Bring on the commercial stations!

  • Trent Castanaveras

    Another mind blowing thought:

    Within the next two years Starship and New Glenn will be ramping up their to orbit cadences. Between those two systems, anticipated to be far more reasonably priced than any previous systems, the sheer tonnage to orbit will increase by at least an order of magnitude almost overnight.

    Both have extremely large cargo capacity, and so fully constructed station modules could be lofted for assembly/docking on orbit. Instant stations.

    Well, relatively anyway lol

    Hopefully some folks are cognizant of these facts, and are positioning themselves to take advantage. It’d be a shame to wait another 5 – 20 years because people couldn’t look just a bit into the future and see the obvious possibilities.

  • Robert Pratt

    Government just helping make private stations more feasible.

  • Icepilot

    The NASA/Biden admin is free to flip the finger at commercial customers.

    I say “Well Done!” (sarc off) Let the unintended consequences begin.
    I’m sure Elon & Bigalow can think of a few opportunities a half those prices.

  • Warren

    But look on the bright side.

    The government could charge a dollar for transporting payloads to the ISS and operating them there. The fact that this would lose money hand over fist would not matter to them. But it would kill any market for commercial space station operations since an operation that has to make money could not compete against an organization that can extort all the money it needs from the taxpayers.

    By setting their prices so high the government has opened a door that commercial operators can rush through and establish a commercial alternative to the government funded ISS.

    Looks like a win for the rest of us.

  • Michael

    Wonder how long it will be before the administration will slap a tax on commercial space activities.

  • Chris

    When will SpaceX realize they can first fill a need and also make a lot of money by designing a space station?

  • @ Chris: Probably yesterday.

  • john hare

    @Jeff,
    With even the best of intentions any board will be selecting for the things that they value. They will also be risk averse concerning the things that might draw criticism. By eliminating the price mechanism of markets, you lose the information on which party values the product more. The price information applies to everything from chewing gum to ISS time to infantry weapons. Something that does not have a cash market price will be applying other criteria, such as votes, power, influence, or just personal preferences. Zero price would be zero feedback which creates dysfunctional systems in the long run, and sometimes the short.

    Another problem with zero price is that the item in question is dependent on the goodwill of the giver. That goodwill erodes in proportion to the lack of connection to the values of the giver. Look at the backlash on various forms of welfare in whatever name it’s serving under this week. A large segment of the taxpayers footing the bill would zero most of the programs today if they could. Not through hatred or control impulse, but because most of the programs are damaging to both the country and the recipients of the “free” largess. And are tired of the constant accusations by the free riders. ISS would have a variation of the problem, as witness the adverse reactions to this attempt to slow the flow of red ink. People not paying full market price eventually feel entitled to the unearned after which it gets ugly.

  • Government just helping make private stations more feasible.

    Much like raising the minimum wage makes retail automation more feasible.

    OTOH Warren has a good point.

  • jeff

    why would USA govt allow a private space station? especially one that competes with its own and uses contractors outside of its control?

  • Trent Castanaveras

    jeff:

    As of December 9, 2020:

    “The National Space Policy recognizes that a robust, innovative, and competitive commercial space sector is foundational to economic development, continued progress, and sustained American leadership in space. It commits the United States to facilitating growth of an American commercial space sector that supports the nation’s interests, is globally competitive, and advances American leadership in the generation of new markets and innovation-driven entrepreneurship.”

    https://www.space.commerce.gov/policy/national-space-policy/

  • Mitch S.

    “why would USA govt allow a private space station? especially one that competes with its own and uses contractors outside of its control?”

    As long as he contractors remember to do business with the lobbyists on K street.

  • Doubting Thomas

    It seems like Axiom Space and Sierra Nevada Corporation are the conceptual successors to the late lamented Bigelow inflatable systems. They both talk about standalone systems, although they may be reluctant to bite the NASA hand that feeds them.

  • Jeff: I wonder if you have ever heard of a document called the Constitution. The USA government does not by law have the right to forbid such a station.

    Not that we follow the law that much any more, mostly because of ignorance illustrated above.

  • pzatchok

    Actually I don’t think they can even raise the prices on lifts to space or return trips.
    At least not on any flights they have not totally booked. Or own. And NASA doesn’t own very many launch/return systems out there.

    If NASA charges more for ride alongs on Space X flights (Small sat side loads)Space X can just charge NASA more to counter the increased cost.

    And what does Russia have to say about these increased costs to fly to their part of the ISS?

  • Edward

    Warren concluded: “Looks like a win for the rest of us.

    Not as implemented. Had they announced their price change in advance and allowed a couple of years for launch of an independent space station, then we could have had commercial operations on ISS now with a transition to commercial space stations in two or three years. Instead, we have now lost much of our ability to find the markets for commercial operations on space stations, which could give us an idea of the number of commercial space stations that we will need in the next five years. We have lost our ability to plan ahead. Government is very good at messing up the ability of businesses to plan ahead, and this current administration is even better than most. This fits in with john hare’s point, too.

    Jeff asked: “why would USA govt allow a private space station? especially one that competes with its own and uses contractors outside of its control?

    The current NASA plan is to not build another government space station but to transition to commercial space stations. ISS is not expected to last much longer than 2028, and NASA has no plan to replace it. If we don’t go commercial, then we will be at the mercy of China for space station access. The Russians are thinking of making their own space station, but their idea currently depends upon using the aging Russian portion of ISS.

    Doubting Thomas,
    A third company, Ixion (NanoRacks), has been planning to build space habitats.

    pzatchok,
    NASA has pricing control over the Commercial Resupply and Commercial Crew flights that it has contracted with SpaceX, Boeing, Northrup Grumman, and Sierra Nevada. These are the flights that are affected by these changes.

    Elections matter, and this is why stolen elections are a bad thing. In an anti-American turn of events, We the People did not choose the administration that is imposing these prices on us.

  • Jeff Wright

    That Jeff isn’t me by the way. Musk can take dog manure and “contaminate” Mars to get soil made.

    The board I ask for—and NASA chiefs—should be like Supreme Court Justices…and serve for life if they are pro-industry, pro infrastructure and pro HLLV

  • Michael G. Gallagher

    Treason with Iran, the coming treason with China over Taiwan, and now treason in space!

  • mrsizer

    why would USA govt allow a private space station?
    How could they forbid it? It’s not THAT difficult to change one’s incorporation from Delaware to the Cayman Islands. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have platforms in international waters that could launch and land rockets? Oh. Wait.

  • pzatchok

    Its not the fact that a space company can move its operations to another nation but the problem with supply in that other nation.

    Will they have the infrastructure to handle a launch company?

  • I don’t believe that the U.S. Government as currently administered will let there be a private space station. Though the U.S. Constitution does not prohibit one being established, the current administration could give a flip about the Constitution and will do everything to block a private space station from being established. The individuals who currently run the Democrat Party seem to all be bought and paid for by the CCP. We are nothing more than a subject of the PRC with these people and a non-government space presence is antithetical to both the CCP and Democrat Party.

  • pzatchok

    I wonder if this price increase has something to do with the SLS/Orion project?

    Show congress the increased price of launches and then show them the (new)comparative value of SLS/Orion.

  • Edward

    jeff (not Jeff Wright) asked: “why would USA govt allow a private space station? especially one that competes with its own and uses contractors outside of its control?

    The freedom to build our own private space station is what makes America exceptional. American Exceptionalism is the freedom to try new things and to be able to find efficiencies that government fails to find. Freedom from government control allows these exceptional things to be tried and accomplished by We the People.

    The Statue of Liberty was intended not to be a beacon to beckon the world to come here but to be a beacon that spread this freedom to the rest of the world, a beacon to show the world how to do it. This intention was lost when the stupid selection committee chose that horrible poem to put at the base of the statue.

    Past attempts at spreading American freedom around the world have failed, because those who tried did not understand the subtle distinction between natural rights and rights granted by government. Our Constitution and Declaration of Independence acknowledge that people are born with natural, or God given, rights. These rights cannot be taken away from people, but they can be usurped. Around the world, human rights documents are written differently, that the rights are granted by governing bodies and are not inherent to the populace. Even the UN’s Declaration of Human Rights grants humanity its rights, and the UN can take away those rights at a whim, per Article 29(3).

    The difference is that We the American People can “just do it,” while others can only do what their governments allow them to do. On a daily basis, neither population feels the difference, but American Exceptionalism is why America has accomplished so much. We just do it. If we want to try to land a booster rocket, two companies just did it. If we want to put a civilian into suborbital space, Peter Diamandis can set that as an X-Prize, several companies and people can try to do it, and Scaled Composites can just do it. Build a Panama Canal? Americans rethought the French attempt and just did it. Werner von Braun wanted to go to the Moon, so he came to America, and America let him just do it and even funded him. Secure online payments? Musk also comes to America and just did it. Take your money made from creating online payments and invest in other companies? Musk just did those things, too.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuv0K8H8ILM (12 minutes, Bill Whittle: What we Believe, Part7)

    Adding regulations to “just doing it” is anti-American. American Exceptionalism requires that government not overstep, that government be limited in its powers, that government be for the people, not the other way around. It is anti-American for the current administration to do as BillB thinks it will. But BillB may be correct, that our current administration may do just that, as tyranny, not freedom, seems to be its goal. This administration seems bound and determined to usurp our natural freedoms, despite our Constitution.

    The ISS has not brought about much change for we planet-bound, because the government limits and regulates what can be done there. Had we been free to do as we pleased, if we had just done it, then we would have many more goods and services available to us. Government assigned NASA to be a gatekeeper to space, and we have neither seen or explored the promise that we thought we had, back in the 1960s. Why didn’t We the People just do it? Because we expected NASA’s Space Shuttle to give us low cost frequent access to space, and we depended upon NASA to just do it. With commercial space removing the governmental gatekeeper, we should quickly realize that 1960s potential.

    NASA should be a lesson as to how even a benevolent government can actually be malevolent.

  • Jeff Wright

    To Pzatchok. I don’t think this has anything to do with SLS directly-but more of a general rebuke towards libertarian hostility towards anything NASA does. The result is like an angry teacher telling a child newly reading Rand to go a day without using TVA supplied power, public roads-maybe even stranding the kid in the woods with an axe and saying “now you are as unencumbered by gov’t as the Founders-good luck!”

    Now I would condemn that same as I would all the Marshall bashing. It’s ugly and unhelpful. James Hillhouse of AmericaSpace said Old Space and New should be praising each other. An eye for an eye leaves all blind.

  • Edward

    Jeff Wright wrote: “An eye for an eye leaves all blind.

    An eye for an eye only leaves the bad people blind.

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