The U.S. decision to extend operational funding for the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024 is increasing the odds there will be some significant return on the $100 billion orbiting investment. So is a growing awareness of its unique utility for industrial and academic research, and some long-delayed traction for the commercial-space incubator NASA set up to promote U.S. National Laboratory assets on the station. While it is still too early to know the precise mix of public discovery and private profits that return on investment will represent, there is growing evidence that the engineering marvel of the age will be more than an impressive showpiece like the great pyramids or Taj Mahal.

As big money for public science on the ISS starts to pay off with enticing results, extension of the station's planned lifetime already has encouraged commercial customers at the other end of the cost scale to plan more missions. Jeff Manber, the commercial-space pioneer who founded the NanoRacks venture, says some of his company's repeat customers were beginning to “hesitate” about buying more time on the station until the life-extension decision was announced.

NanoRacks, which has accommodation and generic equipment for experiments on the station and a team of experts who ensure those experiments meet NASA's safety and other technical requirements, is working with the Center for the Advancement of Science In Space (Casis), a Florida-based non-profit that NASA has mandated to promote the station as a commercial research center in orbit.

“We're trying to commercialize the station and inspire the nation by using a minimum of 50 percent of upmass and downmass and astronaut time for the benefit of mankind here on Earth,” says Greg Johnson, a former space shuttle pilot who visited the ISS twice and has taken over the Casis helm after a series of false starts slowed its startup (AW&ST June 25, 2012, p. 45). “It's a great value proposition, where NASA is paying for [transport] to and from the [ISS] and we have that astronaut time for free—upmass, downmass for free. We do have to pay for the implementation piece, but we're looking for commercial entities to make a business proposition of the [station].”

Casis has revived the old “space is in it” branding concept for companies that bring products to market that are derived from ISS research. A likely first user is Puma, which has conducted research in orbit that may find its way into golf clubs and other sporting goods. Because of the effects of the station's microgravity environment on microorganisms, pharmaceutical research there has been particularly promising, and Casis has focused early outreach work in Texas, Boston and other biotechnology centers to promote the ISS National Lab capabilities. Now it is moving into Silicon Valley in search of both researchers and venture capital.

Both should be easier to find with the station life extension, said government and private-sector participants in a Space Transportation Association (STA) panel on the ISS status held in Washington March 14. Also boosting the prospects for more commercial work on the station are bandwidth upgrades for data links to station experiments and steps NASA is taking to increase average utilization of the U.S.-controlled station assets to 70% from about 50%.

The latest Orbital Sciences Corp. Cygnus capsule to arrive at the station was unberthed last month using the robotic controls in the station cupola by Koichi Wakata, now the station commander, and NASA's Mike Hopkins, who returned to Earth March 10 (see photo). Developed with $500 million in NASA seed money, both the Cygnus and the SpaceX Dragon can accommodate more cargo than is being carried, Manber says, and the Dragon can bring payloads back to Earth.

In the longer term, it is starting to seem at least possible that someone will adopt the evolving commercial-spacecraft model NASA has promoted to orbit a commercial replacement for the ISS. Orbital Sciences has some concepts in mind for using Cygnus as a free-flyer, and SpaceX has proposed a “DragonLab” version of its capsule, which it is also adapting as a contender in NASA's commercial crew development competition.

But for now the transportation, crew time and other support Congress is funding to spark commercial activities in space is essential, say those who are using it. “That's one of the advantages that we have” Johnson argues. “I know SpaceX, with the DragonLab concept—that's a real challenge for them because they don't have that help from the government.”

Ultimately, it may also be possible for industrial or academic researchers to spend time on the ISS without being selected as NASA astronauts, perhaps on the model of the industrial and military payload specialists who flew on the space shuttle, according to Sam Scimemi, the ISS director at NASA headquarters. “One model may be to have private astronauts doing private research,” he says.