According to documents obtained by the Washington Post, President Donald Trump is looking to privatize the International Space Station, phasing out government funding by 2024 and turning it into a commercial venture.
While the plan doesn’t not recommend “deorbiting” the 1990s-vintage space station, which is currently contracted to Boeing and costs Nasa more than $3bn a year, the Nasa documents say “it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform”.
“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 documents state.
Just last week, former astronaut Mark Kelly penned a prescient editorial in the New York Times discussing the possibility of Trump ending government funding of the ISS, warning that cutting it off abruptly would result in the operation shutting down:
“As the cost of access to low earth orbit continues to decline, more opportunities for commerce in space will emerge, with the International Space Station at the nexus and the United States at the helm,” he wrote.
“But all of this will come to a screeching halt (though you won’t hear the ‘screech’ in the vacuum of space) if the Trump administration ends funding for the International Space Station program beyond 2024, a step it is considering.”
While it remains unclear how those in the commercial space exploration industry would receive such a move, the Trump administration clearly wishes to see NASA's role shift to that of customer.
The administration’s proposal envisions “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”.
Equally unclear is how much support the administration would find in Congress. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a staunch conservative, was not pleased to hear the rumor:
“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.