Boeing currently operates the station for NASA at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion annually.
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a kind of orbiting real-estate venture run not by the government, but by private industry.
The White House plans to stop funding for the station after 2024, ending direct federal support of the orbiting laboratory. But it does not intend to abandon the orbiting laboratory altogether, and is working on a transition plan that could turn the station over to the private sector, according to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post.
“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.”
In its budget request to be released Monday, the administration would request $150 million in fiscal year 2019, with more in additional years, “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.”
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The plan to privatize the station is likely to run into a wall of opposition, especially since the United States has spent nearly $100 billion to build and operate it. Last week, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he hoped recent reports of NASA’s decision to end funding of the station “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.” He said the decision was the result of “numbskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget.
“As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can do is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” he said.
When asked about the possibility of a public-private partnership, he said, “I think all of us are open to reasonable proposals that are cost effective and that are utilizing the investments we made in a way that maximize their effectiveness.”
NASA is currently studying whether the life of the station could be extended to 2028, or beyond, and he said any decision should hinge on that report.
But some questioned who would want to take over the station.
“The ISS is built for science and human exploration; it’s not built for profit seeking,” said Andrew Rush, the chief executive of Made In Space, a company that uses 3-D printing to manufacture objects on the space station.
Frank Slazer, the vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, said the plan also could prove sticky with the station’s international partners.
“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,” he said. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”
Boeing currently operates the station for NASA at a cost of $3 billion to $4 billion annually. Last month, as reports circulated about NASA pulling the plug on the station, Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s space-station program manager, said “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.”
The internal NASA document has scant details over how the privatization of the station would work. As it prepares a transition plan, the White House said it “will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry.”
The transition of the station would mark another bold step for NASA in turning over access to what’s known as low Earth orbit to the private sector so that the space agency could focus its resources on exploring deep space. Under President George W. Bush, NASA took the first steps to outsource cargo supply flights to the station to SpaceX and Orbital ATK. President Barack Obama extended that model to hire Boeing and SpaceX to fly astronauts there.
Now, the Trump administration wants to push that public-private partnership even further to encourage “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,” the document said.
It didn’t immediately propose what private enterprise might do with the station or which companies might take it over.
The budget proposal to be released Monday also places a high priority on sending astronauts back to the moon, The New York Times reported Sunday. But it won’t occur until after Trump leaves office, even if he wins re-election. And his administration wants to accomplish that without giving NASA additional money.
According to excerpts from NASA documents obtained by The New York Times before the budget’s release, the administration will propose $19.9 billion in spending for the space agency in fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1. That is a $370 million increase from the current year, the result of the budget deal reached in Congress last week and signed by Trump.
In future years, the administration would like NASA’s spending to drop to $19.6 billion and stay flat through 2023. With inflation, NASA’s buying power would erode, effectively a budget cut each year.
NASA’s budget will be announced at a moment when the agency has no permanent leaders to carry out the new directions. Trump nominated Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma congressman, to be the next administrator, but the Senate has not yet confirmed him. Whether the administration has the votes to confirm him remains uncertain. This is by far the longest period in NASA’s history without an administrator.
Additionally, no one has been nominated for the No. 2 position, deputy administrator.
The Trump administration has also established a National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence, to coordinate space policy between military and civilian agencies. The council held its first public meeting in October and is to meet again this month.
The Trump administration is also looking to trim the budget of NASA’s earth science directorate, which includes climate research, and cancel several spacecraft like the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem mission. The nearly $1.8 billion budget for that part of NASA would be about 6.5 percent lower than what was enacted for fiscal year 2017. The Trump administration also wants to end education programs. Similar proposals last year were disregarded by Congress.
The astrophysics division would be cut by 12 percent, but overall, the budget would give an increase to NASA’s science directorate, primarily for robotic planetary missions.