CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida NASA expects to have twice as much room as it needs for its research on the International Space Station and is looking for U.S. partners to share the novel piece of real estate, authorities said on Monday.
"What we're trying to do is open up the U.S. segment of the space station to be used by a variety of folks," NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier told reporters.
The U.S. space agency plans to spend $1.5 billion a year to operate the orbital outpost and it won't pass any of those costs on to new partners that come aboard.
Any partners, however, would have to manufacture their own hardware and pay their researchers' salaries. And they'll have to trust NASA astronauts and the other live-aboard residents to carry out their work in the space station.
The scheme, which is still in development, grew out of Congressional requests for NASA to consider operating the station as a National Laboratory after its construction is complete in 2010.
NASA is considering setting up or contracting with an institute that would oversee the National Laboratory, which would have access to about half the U.S.-reserved facilities, power and other support services aboard the station.
In addition to the U.S. laboratory Destiny, which has been in orbit since 2001, NASA is allotted half the experiment racks in Europe's Columbus laboratory and Japan's Kibo complex. The new labs are scheduled for launch to the space station later this year and in 2008.
The space agency expects to use its part of the station to prepare for long-duration stays on the moon and to develop the technology to send humans to Mars. The rest would be made available to U.S. researchers.
The National Institutes of Health has shown the most interest in the proposal, said Mark Uhran, the station's assistant associate administrator.
NASA also has been speaking to the departments of Defense, Energy and Commerce, as well as the National Science Foundation and private industry.
"There's general interest," Gerstenmaier said.
A major obstacle could be getting to the space station, which hovers about 220 miles above Earth.
NASA's three space shuttles are scheduled to be retired in 2010 after completing construction of the $100 billion station, which is a project of 16 countries. A replacement ship will not be available until about 2015.
NASA anticipates the space station, which is a little more than 60 percent complete, will remain operational at least through 2020.