After vague details of NASA’s plan to privatize the International Space Station surfaced in February, NASA Administrator Jim Brindenstine is holding discussions with the private sector in an attempt to get the process started. However, eliminating federal funding for the ISS will mean the United States falls farther behind in manned spaceflight and risks future breakthroughs in exploration and discovery.
Continuously manned since the year 2000 with financial support from 15 countries, the ISS is a marvel of human engineering, international cooperation and scientific achievement. Research conducted aboard the ISS has helped us better understand the long-term effects of space travel, which is critical for future manned travel to the moon and beyond. Funding for the ISS is set to continue through at least 2024, with potential extension through 2028 or beyond currently being discussed among partners.
However, President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget calls for ending federal funding for the ISS by 2025, leading to criticism that the proposal would “throw a wrench in U.S. space exploration plans.” As the United States has already spent more than $100 billion over the life of the ISS and annually contributes $3-4 billion, prematurely ending our involvement with the project without having extracted maximum value would be a tremendous waste of resources. Furthermore, experts doubt whether rapidly winding down U.S. funding in order to privatize the ISS is possible, as companies in the space industry say they aren’t prepared to run the station without government funding.
There are several problems with privatizing and commercializing the ISS, first being the fact that the station is not ours to privatize. As a collaboration between the United States, Russia, the European Space Agency and others, all our partners would have to buy into the idea. While an international private consortium may be possible in theory, the few industry players and the quick turnaround time to get an agreement in place makes this a difficult proposition at best.
It’s also hard to see just how the ISS can be profitable given its scientific mission, even if a large multinational consortium were to pony up the funds, which is perhaps why NASA’s original plan is so vague. It certainly wouldn’t require a huge leap in logic to see how, if turned over to the private sector, the ISS could transform from a hub of scientific research into a “hotel” for space tourists or something to that effect. Yet given the high annual costs of maintaining the ISS and the fact that consumer space travel will be prohibitively expensive for all but the wealthiest of the wealthy for quite some time, commercializing the ISS without a viable long-term plan doesn’t make any economic sense.
NASA’s own inspector general, Paul Martin, seems to agree. In a Senate hearing last month, Mr. Martin raised serious doubts about privatization. Noting the “scant commercial interest shown in the Station over its nearly 20 years of operation,” Martin testified that it’s “unlikely that a private entity or entities would assume the Station’s annual operating costs.”
Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has been the most vocal opponent of ending funding for the ISS before the station reaches the end of its useful life. He’s also an avid supporter of private and commercial investment in the space industry, and he’s right on both counts. Given the vast resources and knowledge that will be required to further advances in space travel and exploration, significant private sector contributions and partnerships will be necessary for manned spaceflight beyond the ISS.
This kind of public-private collaboration has already allowed companies like SpaceX and Boeing to develop the first manned U.S. spacecraft since the space shuttle program was retired in 2011, with both firms planning manned test flights of their vehicles this year or next. This next generation of spacecraft will help close the so-called U.S. “space gap” with Russia, to whom we’ve ceded our historical leadership in space travel.
Rather than handing off the ISS to commercial interests (who don’t seem to want it), NASA should continue funding the program while simultaneously creating incentives for the private sector to help lay the groundwork for future manned travel back to the moon, and ultimately, to Mars. As Brindenstine settles into his new job, ending the space gap, not the ISS, should be his top priority.
Demetrios Karoutsos is a political and public affairs strategist.
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