The Trump administration wants to sell the ISS to the highest bidder
It’s no secret that the Trump administration doesn’t like the idea of funding NASA’s International Space Station for much longer. Now though, as new documents reveal, the White House has taken this a step further with plans to sell it into the private sector to the highest bidder.
“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 document states. “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.”
This isn’t the first time NASA has spoken of selling off the ISS. Back in 2016 it was revealed in a video around its Journey to Mars programme that NASA planned to hand the keys over to someone new.
“Ultimately our desire is to hand the space station to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit,” NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development Bill Hill said in the video. “We figure that will be around the mid-20’s.”
That plan is seemingly still on-target to happen as it’s expected that, in a budget request to be released later today, the Trump administration will request $150 million in the fiscal year 2019 to help transition the ISS into private sector ownership. The money would be used “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.”
Interestingly, the internal NASA document actually provided next-to-nothing in regards of how privatisation of the ISS would actually work. The White House simply states that it “will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry.”
It also doesn’t seem to take into account how other space agencies around the world would feel about such a move, seeing as this is supposed to be an international space station.
The US has already spent nearly $100 billion on building and operating the ISS, which has some members of government a little uneasy about claims of selling it off to the highest bidder.
Senator Ted Cruz said of the report that he hopes they “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot”, stating that the decision was down to “numbskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget.
“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,” he said, possibly succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy.
NASA is still looking into the ISS’ shelf-life and, as part of its research, believes it could still be serviceable until 2028. If true, Cruz believes no government decision should be made until it’s known just how long the government could get use out its investment into the ISS.
Who will buy the ISS?
Turning the ISS over to the private sector could still prove tricky, even if it’s made into a desirable object for sale. Not only is the ISS used as a place for science and human exploration, but turning a profit from research projects just isn’t what it was built for. Anyone who would take the station over would either need to understand that, or refit it for another purpose – namely as a base of operations ahead of jumping out further into our solar system.
Another barrier to sale is the ISS’s international partners. It may be primarily funded by the US, but its survival as a station relies heavily upon multinational cooperation and knowledge sharing. If a private sector entity becomes involved, you have to wonder where the lines are drawn between private R&D and shared knowledge.
Boeing, which has been involved with the ISS since 1995, also has a stance on the matter. Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s space station program manager, previously stated that “walking away from the International Space Station now would be a mistake, threatening American leadership and hurting the commercial market as well as the scientific community”.
On Sunday, he issued another statement saying that “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 enterprise”.
Selling off the station wouldn’t be the first time NASA has handed its responsibilities over to the private sector. While not quite on the same level, NASA has handed over its low Earth orbit operations over to private enterprises so it could focus on deep space operations. Now low Earth operations are handled by the likes of SpaceX, Blue Origins and Orbital ATK.
The Trump administration sees its steps around selling the ISS as an evolution of what began with the George W Bush Jr and Barack Obama administrations. The document states that they want to encourage “the emergence of an environment in [low Earth orbit] where NASA is one of the many customers of a non-governmental human space flight managed and operated enterprise while providing a smooth and uninterrupted transition.”
Alongside the lack of plans regarding how such a transition would take place, the NASA document doesn’t even happen to state reasons for why anyone would want to buy the ISS in the first place.
So, while the sale of the ISS seems like an inevitability, there’s probably still a good few years left until it becomes the Coca-Cola Space Station.