The Trump administration is considering privatizing the International Space Station (ISS), and end funding to the orbiting international lab after 2024, a senior NASA official confirmed to Fox News.
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According to a document obtained by The Washington Post, which first reported the news, the current White House does not plan to abandon the ISS, but instead is developing a “transition plan” to hand it off to the private sector.
“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 internal NASA document obtained by the Post 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.”
The administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 will ask for $150 million “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.”
Since 1993, the U.S. has spent about $87 billion to build and operate the ISS. The space agency awarded a 10-year, $136 million cooperative agreement to the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage non-NASA reach activities on the National Laboratory—the U.S. section of the Space Station. Then, in July 2017, NASA furthered its agreement with CASIS to September 2024, which increased the total cost to $196 million, according to an audit by the NASA Office of Inspector General.
Astronaut Mark Kelly, who visited the space station four times between 2001 and 2011, said in a New York Times opinion piece that cutting funding to the floating lab would be a mistake.
“Cutting funding for the station, now between $3 billion and $4 billion a year, would be a step backward for the space agency and certainly not in the best interest of the country,” Kelly wrote.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness, also opposed the idea of the federal government no longer providing funding for the ISS.
“We have invested massively in the ISS. It has produced enormous benefits to the United States and the world, and we should use that asset as long as it is technologically feasible and cost-effective to do so,” he said at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference last week. “As long as I’m chairman of the science and space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong and bipartisan support in the United States Congress.”
Since ending the Space Shuttle program in 2011, the U.S. relies on Russia to transport astronauts to the ISS. The U.S. currently pays $80 million per seat to travel on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.
Both Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are developing crew transportation systems to enable U.S. astronauts to travel on an American-made space vehicle. Certification is expected in early 2019, the same year the contract between Russia and the U.S. expires. However, the two companies which are working under contract with NASA as part of the commercial crew program, have had continued delays, attributed mainly to efforts to “further address and reduce risk,” which have prevented both from testing their respective transport capsules with a crew on board. Due to the delays, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the certifications are likely to “slip into” December 2019 for SpaceX and February 2020 for Boeing.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressed the two companies for information regarding safety concerns related to the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, which will launch Boeing’s product, the CST-100 Starliner capsule, as well as previous issues with SpaceX’s units.
The contracts Boeing and SpaceX have with the American space agency for the vehicles are worth up to a combined total of $6.8 billion.