Trump’s plan to privatize the ISS by 2025 probably won’t work, NASA’s inspector general says

The Trump Administration's plan to deliver the International Space Station to the private sector by 2025 will probably not work, says a government auditor. It is unlikely that any commercial company can afford the enormous cost of operating the ISS within the next six years, the auditor said.

NASA Inspector General, Paul Martin, expressed his concerns about the transition of the space station during a Senate subcommittee hearing on May 16, led by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL). During his testimony, Martin said there simply is not a "sufficient business case" for space companies to assume the annual operating costs of the ISS, which is expected to reach $ 1,200 million by 2024. Industries that would need ISS, such as tourism Space research or development and spatial development have not yet been exhausted, he said. In addition, the private space industry has not been enthusiastic about the use of ISS, either for research or for profit. "Quite frankly, the scant commercial interest shown at the station during its nearly 20 years of operation gives us a break on the agency's current plans," Martin said at the hearing.

President Trump's budget request in February called on NASA to end direct federal funding for the ISS by 2025 as a way to free up funds for the future projects of the space agency. Currently, the space station costs NASA between $ 3 and $ 4 billion each year to operate, and the administration wants to redirect that money to other things, such as developing new hardware to return to the Moon. But instead of completely getting rid of the ISS, NASA proposed the idea of ​​commercial companies taking over the station. Companies could operate all or part of it. Or they could put their own habitats in their place.

However, Martin said today that the transition from ISS to the private sector probably would not save NASA much money. This is because the space agency will still continue to send astronauts and cargoes to and from the privatized space station (or any other commercial habitat that is in low Earth orbit). And transportation is expensive. For example, NASA has allocated $ 1.7 billion to transport astronauts and supplies to the ISS in the 2018 fiscal year. "Any assumption that ending direct federal funding releases $ 3 to $ 4 billion as of 2025. it's an illusion, "Martin said. 19659006] Considering all these problems, Martin said that NASA has an obvious alternative: to extend ISS funding beyond 2024, the year in which the program budget is scheduled to end. Martin said his office discovered that many of NASA's research objectives for the station, such as studying health risks in space and testing new technologies, will not be completed by then; an extension would give the agency more time to complete all these studies. And Boeing, which built most of the ISS, argues that most of the vehicle can last until 2028, without the need for major maintenance.

An extension is something that both Cruz and Nelson strongly support. The two senators, representing the states with the main NASA centers that oversee the ISS, were openly voiced to stop the administration's plans. "Let me be clear: as long as I am president of this subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong support, strong bipartisan support, in the United States Congress," Cruz said in his opening statement. Nelson also said that the administration's proposal to end ISS funding is "dead on arrival", arguing that the ISS is a critical platform needed for the training of astronauts and the development of technology. "If this plan to end prematurely with the current ISS program advances, I am afraid that NASA's experience in these critical areas -experience that we will have to have if we go to Mars with humans and return safely- that experience will be lost. "Nelson said.

Cruz argued that ending the ISS program early without an adequate replacement would be a disaster for NASA. "Canceling a program prematurely for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars," he said. He also argued that setting the 2025 date was an arbitrary decision that was not backed by science. At the hearing, the senator asked NASA's associate administrator for human exploration, William Gerstenmaier, if the date was originally proposed by NASA or the administration. "It originated in the administration," replied Gerstenmaier.

However, extending the space station program comes with its own set of drawbacks. The risk of a failure in the ISS increases the longer it lasts in orbit, and keeping the program fully funded means that NASA will continue to incur costs of $ 3 to $ 4 billion each year. In addition, the extension depends partly on NASA's international partners, such as Japan and the European Space Agency, which cover 23 percent of NASA's costs to maintain the ISS. And it is not clear if they want to continue operating the space station, according to Martin.

NASA's other alternative is to get rid of the ISS completely, slowly dismantling it piece by piece and safely immersing it in the Earth's atmosphere. But that is not as easy as it seems. The elimination of the orbit of the space station will be a three-year process estimated to cost $ 950 million, according to the inspector general.

Therefore, any option that NASA chooses for the future of the ISS will require a lot of planning and money. Congress is still in the process of finalizing the budget for NASA next year, and it seems likely that lawmakers will try to keep the ISS for much longer. But the space agency needs to know what route the ISS program will take. "The sooner Congress and the administration agree on a path for the ISS, the better NASA can plan," said Martin.