A proposal to cut federal support for the ISS in the 2020s amplifies the wider debate over the interplay between the public and private space spheres.
The fate of the International Space Station (ISS), the crown jewel of modern human spaceflight, is murky after 2024. The station’s partners, including NASA and the Russian space agency Roscosmos, have agreed to fund it until then, but there are many competing proposals about its future beyond that timeframe.
Now, the Trump administration has presented its own post-2024 plan for the ISS—privatizing it.
The budget for the fiscal year 2019, released this week, proposes ending direct federal funding of the ISS in favor of commercial investment. To make this transition, the budget suggests seeding $150 million into a program that “would begin support for commercial partners to encourage development of capabilities that the private sector and NASA can use.”
The proposal will force the general public to confront a question that has become much more tangible in recent years: Where should the public and private space spheres cooperate, and where should they diverge? It’s an idea that is fresh in many people’s minds in the wake of SpaceX’s flashy Falcon Heavy launch last week, and it will only become more pressing as the NewSpace community—the catchall term for the entrepreneurial sphere of spaceflight—continues to mature.
Not surprisingly, the plan to privatize the ISS has generated controversy. When rumors about it began circulating last week, Republican Senator Ted Cruz said he hoped it would “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot” and blamed it on “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget, according to the Washington Post.
“As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can to is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” Cruz said.
Other commentators have noted that tossing the ISS keys to the commercial sector would be a logistical nightmare that puts the station’s other member nations in a bind. “This notion that you could just turn the most-complicated vehicle we’ve ever built, that was built and based on this international partnership, I don’t think is really possible,” said NASA astronaut Scott Kelly in an interview with Maria Bartiromo of FOX Business. “Keep in mind, this is the most complicated thing we’ve ever built.”
In contrast, many NewSpace entrepreneurs see the plan not only as a business opportunity, but as a way to free NASA up to explore more ambitious frontiers.
“I think NASA’s looking at moving onwards from low Earth orbit as much as possible and turning that over to the commercial space industry, because there is more science and research to be done outside of low Earth orbit,” said Barret Schlegelmilch, president of the MIT Sloan Astropreneurship and Space Industry Club and co-founder of the startup Lunar Station, in a phone interview with Motherboard.
In particular, he noted, NASA is eager to develop a crewed lunar orbiting platform as a successor station to the ISS. This inhabitable spacecraft would enable human exploration of the Moon, both on the lunar surface and from orbit, while also acting as a pitstop for future missions to Mars and beyond.
“A lot of it comes down to the money and the cost of operating ISS which is billions of dollars a year in standard maintenance and operations,” Schlegelmilch said. “That’s a lot of money that could be directed to the lunar orbiting platform and I think it would be difficult to have a budget that includes both of them.”
From this perspective, the public space sphere should continue its role as the “pathfinder and trailblazer,” in Schlegelmilch’s words, by pushing further into the solar system, leaving the private sphere to fill many of the niches in its wake.
In the case of privatizing the ISS, this would likely involve a consortium of emerging space industries that band together to share the station’s monumental operational costs. For instance, Bigelow Aerospace, a company that has already road-tested expandable habitats on the ISS, could partner up with biotech, pharmaceutical, and material science companies interested in exploiting the unique microgravity environment for research and development. It might even open opportunities for China, which is barred as a member nation on the ISS, to participate in the station through its own emerging commercial space boom.
But not all commercial space leaders are optimistic that these industries are ready to take up the mantle on the ISS within the next six years. Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s space station program manager, called the plan a “mistake” and said that prematurely turning the station over to private companies could “have disastrous consequences for American leadership in space and for the chances of building space-focused private enterprise," according to statement released Sunday.
Ultimately, the feasibility of the plan will depend on the response of the the ISS’s partner nations to the proposal in the coming months, as well as the general interest that the commercial sphere shows in taking over its exorbitant costs.
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