You may have heard about the White House’s plans to privatise the International Space Station and turn low-Earth orbit into a place of business that NASA can become a customer of, rather than its sponsor. Now, according to an interview with the Washington Post, NASA’s recently confirmed Jim Bridenstine has begun speaking to companies about how that might work.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise—back in March, NASA released an International Space Station Transition report on the future of America’s place in low-Earth orbit, and NASA officials have been saying for years that they would like to see private companies take over the US role in the ISS. Now, as reported by the Washington Post, Bridenstine has discussed the transition to companies who might be want to be a part of it.
“We’re in a position now where there are people out there that can do commercial management of the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said in the interview. “I’ve talked to many large corporations that are interested in getting involved in that through a consortium, if you will.”
The Washington Post doesn’t say which companies these might be, but NASA’s March report touts several examples of existing commercial partnerships with Orbital ATK and SpaceX, and the addition of a third service provider, Sierra Nevada Corporation.
Gizmodo reached out to Boeing about potentials for partnership. Spokesman Steve Siceloff told us that it’s too early to know what the future of the ISS will look like, given the international agreements, though “the whole space industry is looking at different aspects of the ISS,” he said.
But why change from the status quo? According to the NASA report, the ISS transition would allow commercial entities to develop humanity-benefitting technology. It would potentially lower costs to the government, so NASA could put more resources toward sending humans beyond low-Earth orbit. NASA hopes to complete the transition by 2025, giving companies time to develop the experience and expertise to operate in low-Earth orbit.
Some scientists disagree with the motivations behind this plan. NASA’s annual $18 billion (£13 billion) budget might sound like a lot, but it’s peanuts compared to the total US budget, which approaches $4 trillion (£3 trillion). US defence spending is nearly $700 billion (£522 billion). When compared to the country’s total science expenditure, “we are not particularly breaking the bank here. You could pay for all of that science with just some of the military’s toys,” wrote physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, postdoctoral research associate in theoretical physics at the University of Washington, Seattle, in a tweet.
Another scientist, Karen Daniels at North Carolina State University, told Gizmodo that commercial partners bring budgeting and billing uncertainties that could make it harder to conduct research. Her team currently conducts experiments on board parabolic flights (vomit comets) that she hopes to one day conduct on the ISS. “A key role of government-funded basic science has been to support research into questions which do not yet have any specific commercial or public health benefit,” she said, “so it’s inappropriate to involve profits into the relationship between scientists and the ISS.”
Daniels thought the proposed switch might move NASA’s focus away from high-risk, high-reward projects. “Short-term profitability would likely dominate the decision-making, rather than long-term benefit to humanity. Worse, an emphasis on cost-cutting over mission safety could easily develop.”
But nothing is changing just yet. There are other countries using the space station, and it’s unclear whether the private industry will be ready to meet NASA’s needs. Nevertheless, it’s clear that NASA has an eye toward private companies increasingly taking over work that it used to do itself. [via The Washington Post]