It’s been known for some time that the White House has been considering cutting off funding to the International Space Station by 2025 to free up resources for NASA, an agency President Donald Trump wants to send astronauts back to the moon but has also proposed should make do with a shoestring budget. Per the Washington Post, internal documents now show Trump wants to turn the ISS into a “kind of orbiting real estate venture run not by the government, but by private industry.”
Yes, the president wants to privatize the ISS, and will request $150 million in a Monday budget proposal “to enable the development and maturation of commercial entities and capabilities which will ensure that commercial successors to the ISS—potentially including elements of the ISS—are operational when they are needed,” the paper wrote. NASA would just be one of the ISS or that theoretical future private space station’s clients, reversing the current arrangement where NASA personnel and their international partners manage the station and conduct onboard experiments.
However, the Post also reported that the White House apparently doesn’t have anyone specific in mind to take over the space station, which costs $3-4 billion a year to run and has already run the federal government nearly $100 billion in construction, maintenance, and operational costs. The ISS has no clear commercial use, those other governments would be sure to balk at the idea of turning the station over to the private sector, and even Republicans like Ted Cruz are calling full privatization an extremely stupid idea since the ISS could potentially stay in use until 2028 or beyond.
“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 told the Post.
As SpaceNews noted, Cruz’s opposition to the idea is likely a signal that the administration’s plan will face major difficulties in Congress. Private industry isn’t so thrilled either, since the ISS is designed for research and no one is eager to take up the cost of maintaining it.
“It will be very hard to turn ISS into a truly commercial outpost because of the international agreements that the United States is involved in,” Aerospace Industries Association vice president of space systems Frank Slazer told the Post. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”
Former astronaut Mark Kelly recently wrote in the New York Times that while there has been a surge of commercial activity in low-Earth orbit in the past few years, it would “come to a screeching halt” if the ISS and its government-funded scientific missions which currently make those ventures possible were halted. Kelly additionally warned that Russia and China would take the lead in commercial spaceflight if the U.S. gave up its only long-term outpost in space. As the Guardian noted, since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011 NASA has no means to get astronauts into space and currently relies on Russian Soyuz rockets to get them to the ISS; private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin won’t launch manned missions to low Earth orbit until this fall or winter at the earliest.
Trump has been pushing for NASA to return astronauts to the moon, possibly to establish a long-term colony that could be used as a test or support site for missions to more distant places like Mars. The New York Times, however, reported that even in an optimal scenario where the agency is able to overcome obstacles like low funding and the continued absence of an appointed leadership, any such moon landing would occur long after Trump left office (even if he is re-elected). While NASA is currently working on the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to replace the retired shuttle, it isn’t expected to launch any manned missions using that technology until 2021-2023.