NASA Low Earth Orbit Economy FAQ

The International Space Station as it appears in 2018. Zarya is visible at the center of the complex, identifiable by its partially retracted solar arrays. (Credit: NASA)

LEO Economy FAQs

Frequently Asked Questions about:

The Commercial Use and Pricing Policy

What is low-Earth orbit?

For the purposes of this policy, low-Earth orbit (LEO) is considered the area in Earth orbit near enough to Earth for convenient transportation, communication, observation, and resupply. This is the area the International Space Station currently orbits, and is where many proposed future platforms will be located.

Why is NASA interested in commercializing low-Earth orbit?

Low-Earth orbit provides an ideal environment for crew training, research, and testing hardware for exploration use, as well as other activities. NASA’s investment in the International Space Station and its commercial activities, including commercial cargo resupply missions, commercial crew, and the ISS National Lab research and development, have led the way to return benefits to NASA and the American economy. NASA is committed to continuing the sustained human presence in low-Earth orbit begun when the first crews lived aboard the station Nov. 2, 2000. NASA will continue to need access to a destination in low-Earth orbit for the advancement of human exploration, as outlined in “Forecasting Future NASA Demand in Low-Earth Orbit: Revision Two – Quantifying Demand.” The agency is committed to leading the way in extending this commercial space economy to meet future needs through commercially-provided destinations and services. NASA is using the resources and infrastructure of the space station to assist the commercial sector in developing and deploying new capabilities in low-Earth orbit. Both the Congress and national space policy have declared it is in the national and economic security interests of the United States to encourage the development of a healthy and robust commercial sector in LEO.

Will NASA compete with my organization if we are selling the same resource? 

No.  NASA is precluded from performing reimbursable activities for commercial partners if doing so would compete with the private sector. Acknowledgement of this prohibition is in the LEO Commercialization NASA Interim Directive, Section 7.0 “Purchasing and Using ISS Resource,” which states, “NASA is restricted from competing with the U.S. private sector; therefore, if, at any point, a U.S. Entity is available to provide any of these resources, NASA shall, to the best of its ability, migrate the provision of such services to the non-USG provider.” The restriction is embodied in National Space Policy of America (June 28, 2010), which states that NASA “refrain from conducting U.S. Government space activities that preclude, discourage, or compete with U.S. commercial space activities, unless required by national security or public safety.” In addition, 51 U.S.C. § 50501 addresses use of space-related facilities on a reimbursable basis by non-Federal entities. NASA’s policy can be found in NPD 9080.1.

Are Crew members allowed to perform commercial and marketing activities?

Yes. Approved commercial and marketing activities consistent with NASA’s policy are allowed under the Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew. This is because those activities are considered International Space Station duties.

The Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew sets forth the standards of conduct applicable to all ISS crew members during preflight, on-orbit, and post-flight activities. In addition, this document establishes a clear chain of command on-orbit and sets forth both disciplinary regulations and the ISS commander’s authority to establish safety and security procedures.

The Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew states “ISS crew members shall refrain from any use of the position of ISS crew member that is motivated, or has the appearance of being motivated, by private gain, including financial gain, for himself or herself or other persons or entities. Performance of ISS duties shall not be considered to be motivated by private gain.” Accordingly, commercial and marketing activities supported under an authorized written agreement with NASA, and coordinated and scheduled through established crew assignment processes, are not—for purposes of the Code of Conduct for the International Space Station Crew—considered motivated by private gain. As noted above, U.S. Government astronauts are additionally subject to U.S. Government ethics requirements, which impose additional restrictions on U.S. Government astronaut crew members.

Do U.S. Government Ethics requirements impact the ability of U.S. astronauts to support commercial entities under NASA’s policy?

Yes. U.S. Government ethics requirements, including but not limited to the prohibition on endorsing products, services or enterprises, will continue to apply to U.S. Government astronauts at all times. Accordingly, in order to be approved, U.S. Government astronaut support of marketing activity must take place behind the scenes without being able to recognize the U.S. Government astronaut. NASA ethics officials will provide ethics advice and counsel on the application of federal ethics provisions in conjunction with NASA’s coordination. Also, NASA’s written agreement with partner entities will prohibit the use of information about or depiction of U.S. astronauts in a manner contrary to U.S. Government ethics rules.

What are the media guidelines? What are the advertising guidelines?

NASA provides guidelines for the use of media, with specific regulations for NASA content used for commercial and marketing activities.

Why can’t a private astronaut perform voluntary services for NASA?  Can they participate in downlinks or talk to schools?

Under the law, a government agency is not allowed to accept voluntary services from an individual or entity. That means that a private astronaut on the International Space Station with an agreement to conduct commercial and marketing activities cannot simply perform activities for the direct benefit of NASA on the ISS because he or she has free time, for example. If a private astronaut meets training and other requirements, that person can certainly provide direct support to NASA under an alternate arrangement.

A private astronaut can always engage in downlink or other outreach opportunities in his or her personal capacity or on behalf of their employer.

Why do you have a pricing structure?

NASA is offering these initial rates as a way to begin to gauge the depth and breadth of the commercial market in low-Earth orbit. These rates offer interested companies a way to plan their business models and activities as NASA moves toward a more commercial mode of operation. NASA expects to revisit this pricing policy at least semi-annually, and will adjust it as market forces indicate.

What happens to Intellectual Property (IP) generated during low-Earth orbit activities?

The allocation of rights in inventions and data depends on the terms of any applicable agreements or contracts. Typically, under NASA contracts and agreements, contractors and partners have the right to retain, or obtain, ownership of inventions they develop under their contract or agreement. Under most procurement contracts, NASA is required to retain a government-purpose license in inventions and data created under the contracts. Allocation of rights under partnership agreements are more flexible. In general, NASA’s partners are not restricted in their use and distribution of data they first produce in the performance of an agreement, or data first produced by NASA under a collaborative or reimbursable agreement.

To facilitate the commercial development of critical technologies needed for human space exploration, NASA takes steps to ensure that its contractors and partners retain the maximum rights permitted by law, unless NASA has identified a specific need for it to obtain rights in intellectual property for its own purposes as part of an agreement. It is part of NASA’s mission to “seek and encourage the fullest commercial use of space,” so it is NASA’s interest to ensure that its contractors and partners are able to leverage investment to advance commercial space activities.

What are march-in rights?

The Bayh-Dole Act provides Federal Agencies with “march-in rights.” (see, 35 U.S.C. § 203). March-in rights allow the government to require the contractor (or patent assignee) to grant a reasonable “nonexclusive, partially exclusive, or exclusive license” to a “responsible applicant or applicants,” if certain specific circumstances exist (e.g., health or safety concerns, lack of practical application, etc.). The foundation of the Bayh-Dole Act supports the principle that inventions resulting from federally funded research should benefit the American people by the development of the inventions into commercially available products and services by achieving practical application of the invention that benefits the public. Should the patent owner refuse to grant the license, then the government can grant the license itself.

Does the government always retain march-in rights?

Yes, if the Bayh-Dole Act applies, as these rights are statutorily granted pursuant to this act (35 U.S.C. § 203). However, NASA knows of no instances within the over 38-year old history of the Bayh-Dole Act when these march-in rights were ever exercised by any Federal Agency.

What can the government use intellectual property for under a government purpose license?

While there is no one specific definition defining the scope of a “government purpose license,” a typical license grant in regard to an invention (or similarly for data), might state: “…the Government shall have a nonexclusive, nontransferable, irrevocable, paid-up license to practice, or have practiced for or on its behalf, the subject invention throughout the world.” (FAR 52.227-11, Patent Rights- Ownership by the Contractor.) This is read to mean that the government may practice the invention itself, or the government may permit another to practice it on its behalf (i.e., for the purpose of benefiting the government).

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Frequently Asked Questions about: 

Private Astronaut Missions

Who is considered an ISS crew member?

Anyone who is on the International Space Station, including NASA astronauts, International Partner astronauts, or private astronauts.

What is a private astronaut mission? 

A private astronaut mission is a privately-funded, dedicated commercial flight to the International Space Station (ISS) whereby approved commercial activities can be conducted by private astronauts on the space station. NASA-sponsored private astronaut missions will use a NASA-certified U.S. Crewed Vehicle (USCV), and will normally be of short duration, less than 30 days. The private astronaut mission sponsor is responsible for selecting the crew and ensuring they meet NASA’s medical standards and certification procedures for International Space Station crew consistent with their role on the mission.

What kinds of activities will private astronauts perform on the space station?

Private astronaut activities performed on the International Space Station may include: allowable commercial and marketing activities, certain promotional capabilities that meet the requirements of the U.S. government, and routine space station operational tasks.

What support will NASA provide to private astronauts?

NASA will perform International Space Station mission integration for all private astronauts to ensure the safety and efficiency of space station operations. Additional support will be provided on a mission-specific basis depending on private astronaut provider needs and requests. This support may include, but is not limited to, cargo launch and return, on-orbit ambient and conditioned stowage, ISS crew time, life support services, crew support consumables (e.g. food, crew provisions, medical kits), exercise equipment, power, camera/video use, and data downlink.

What are the costs of supporting private astronauts, and what will NASA charge the private astronaut mission provider?

The total cost of the NASA services provided will vary by private astronaut mission and be borne by the mission provider. The value of the individual services (e.g. crew time, cargo return, on-orbit stowage) will be determined in conjunction with the specific terms and requirements of the private astronaut mission. Prices will be consistent with the published pricing policy for the services requested.

What kind of agreement will NASA have with a private astronaut mission provider?

Depending upon the goals and requirements proposed particular mission, and the entity providing resources or services, private astronaut mission providers may operate on the International Space Station pursuant to a Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contract, a Space Act Agreement, and/or other arrangement as deemed appropriate under the circumstances.

How many private astronaut missions to the space station can be supported?

NASA anticipates supporting up to two (2) short-duration (typically less than 30 days) private astronaut missions each year, dependent on visiting spacecraft traffic planning constraints and the health and performance of space station systems. NASA may reconsider private astronaut mission opportunities if circumstances change.

What scheduling opportunities will private astronaut missions have for flights to the space station?

NASA will identify candidate private astronaut mission schedule windows. Private astronaut mission scheduling availability will be subject to overall integrated space station requirements, and is also subject to change given spacecraft traffic changes, anomalies, or other unforeseen circumstances.

How can I become a private astronaut?

Regardless of background, whether for professional or personal reasons, anyone interested in becoming a private astronaut must make an arrangement through a U.S. entity that has an agreement with NASA to conduct a private astronaut mission.

What requirements must private astronauts meet?

Private astronauts will have to meet FAA regulatory requirements, which include liability waivers, insurance, and indemnification during launch and reentry activities.

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