Date
17 August 2018
US President Donald Trump holds a space astronaut toy. The government is said to be planning to privatize the International Space Station. Photo: Reuters
US President Donald Trump holds a space astronaut toy. The government is said to be planning to privatize the International Space Station. Photo: Reuters

US plans to privatize International Space Station: report

The Trump administration wants to have private entities take over operation of the International Space Station (ISS), which costs over US$3 billion a year to run, according to the Washington Post.

Citing a document obtained by it, the newspaper reported that the White House plans to cut off the station’s funding by 2024, ending direct federal support of the orbiting laboratory.

The administration is working on a transition plan that “could turn the station over to the private sector,” the report said.

The proposal envisions a future for the station in low-Earth orbit, where NASA is “one of many customers of a non-governmental human space flight managed and operated enterprise” at the ISS.

“The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time — it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform,” the paper said, citing an internal memo from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

“NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit.”

The internal memo also stated that the White House “will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry” as it leans into a future of commercially operated habitats in the low-Earth orbit, according to the report.

Starting from the George W. Bush administration, NASA had taken some initial steps in turning over access to the low-Earth orbit to the private sector, outsourcing cargo supply flights to the station to private companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK.

President Barack Obama continued the transition to hire Boeing and SpaceX to fly astronauts to the station.

According to the Washington Post report, the Trump administration wants to extend the public-private partnership one step further to encourage “the emergence of an environment in [low-Earth orbit] where NASA is one of many customers of a non-governmental human space flight managed and operated enterprise, while providing a smooth and uninterrupted transition.”

The United States has spent nearly US$100 billion to build and operate the station orbiting around the earth at more than 17,000 miles per hour. The station is studying whether the life of the station could be extended to 2028 or beyond, according to the Post.

In Trump’s budget proposals released on Monday, the administration is seeking US$150 million in fiscal year 2019, with more in additional years “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.”

Involved with the station since 1995, Boeing operates the station for NASA for an annual cost of around US$3 billion to $4 billion.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s space station program manager, said “handing over a rare national asset to commercial enterprises before the private sector is ready to support it could have disastrous consequences for American leadership in space and for the chances of building space-focused private enterprises.”

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 13

Translation by Ben Ng with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal

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