According to White House internal documents, the Trump Administration is considering privatizing the ISS to turn it into commercial space real estate. Previously, President Trump said he wants American astronauts back on the moon, something which requires freeing resources from NASA’s already thin budget.
Two weeks ago, a White House draft budget proposal, officially due to be released on February 12th, included a directive that would withdraw funding for the ISS as soon as it is possible, namely in 2024. Funding was extended until this data in 2014 by the Obama Administration and after 2024 it’s not clear whether the United States will remain on board with the project.
Every year, NASA spends $3-4 billion on the International Space Station, a massive collaborative effort of which the United States has always been a part of. Since the project’s inception, NASA has spent more than $100 billion on the ISS and related missions.
The space station is a space lab in Earth’s low orbit and a home for up to six people. Astronauts have lived in space every day since the year 2000, performing research that could not be done on Earth otherwise. Over 100 science experiments have been performed on the ISS, ranging from bone studies to materials research. Over the years, the US government has also been able to dock spacecraft with the space lab or launch satellites into orbit from there.
Thanks to the ISS, we’ve come to learn, for instance, that microgravity causes significant changes in the human body and biology. Weightlessness seems to alter brain structure, switches genes on and off, impairs vision, and causes muscle atrophy. In other words, the scientific contribution of the ISS is invaluable, considering that the findings enabled by the station would not have been possible otherwise.
At the same time, the International Space Station has yet to produce a dime. It was never supposed to, in the first place, having been designed as a huge lab in space — one of the most impressive infrastructure projects humanity has ever undertaken.
Withdrawing funding for the ISS would effectively hand over the reins of space exploration to Russia and China. It could keep American astronauts grounded for over a decade, until NASA and private partners develop the necessary logistics for launching manned missions in Earth’s low orbit or even deep space with American space flight technology. Since the shuttle program was discontinued, American astronauts have launched to the ISS exclusively on Russian Soyuz rockets. Each seat costs $80 million.
Privatizing the US-side of the ISS after 2024, as the Washington Post reports, a bid to extract cash from the government’s massive investment, would be an even more uninspired move. First and foremost, the ISS is a collaborative effort involving many allies and partners. It even has “international” in its name. It’s extremely unlikely that any of America’s partners will view any kind of privatization of ISS modules in good faith. The political backlash would be intense, to say the least.
“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,” said Frank Slazer, Aerospace Industries Association vice president of space systems, to the Post.
“It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”
“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.
From a financial standpoint, what investor would be willing to rent or buy real estate on the ISS? Consider it would cost hundreds of millions to gain access to infrastructure that has primarily been designed for science. Space tourism would cost way too much even for the world’s wealthiest to mandate the costs of operating and maintaining a space station. Yes, Bigelow Space is indeed working to attach an inflatable habitat to the ISS to act as a space hotel, but privatizing the station is a different matter entirely. It just doesn’t make sense from a return of investment perspective.