Trump’s plan to privatize ISS by 2025 might not work

Trump Administration’s suggestion of delegating control of International Space Station (ISS) to private sector organizations by the year 2025 will probably not work, according to a government auditor. It is not possible for commercial companies to bear the enormous costs operating costs ISS by the coming six years.

Paul Martin, who is the Inspector General of NASA, has also voiced his concern over the transition of ISS during a Senate space committee hearing headed by the Senator Ted Cruz and the Senator Bill Nelson. Martin said that there is no business incentive for space companies to take on this enormous project. ISS’s annual operational costs will reach 1.2 billion USD by the year 2024. Industries requiring ISS (space tourism, space R&D), have not panned out either. The private space industry is not too eager on making use of ISS for research or profit. The frugal interest shown in ISS in the past 20 years by the commercial space industry makes their intention evident, according to Martin.

Trump’s budget plans (in February) required NASA to stop ISS’s federal funding by 2025. This was done to free funds for NASA’s future projects. ISS costs NASA 3 to 4 billion USD annually. The administration wants to utilize that money for other projects like developing hardware to return to Moon. Instead of doing away with ISS, NASA proposed that commercial organizations could control it, or at least parts of it. They could even build their own infrastructure.

Contrary to expectations, the transition might not save NASA a lot of money. NASA will continue to send people and cargo using the privatized station. It whole process is quite expensive. The space agency had put aside 1.7 billion USD for the transport of astronauts and cargo to the ISS in 2018. So the assumption that the transition will help in saving 3 to 4 billion dollars is wrong.

The obvious alternative is to allow funding of ISS beyond 2024. Martin’s office has discovered that plenty of NASA’s goals for the ISS like studying health risks in space and testing new technology will not be completed by 2024. Thus the extension will allow NASA to complete the tasks. Boeing, which built a significant part of ISS, has declared that ISS will not need much maintenance till 2028. Both Cruz and Nelson support the extension.

According to Cruz, ending the ISS program prematurely without a proper alternative spells disaster for NASA. Moreover, the decision of selecting the year 2025 for ending the program had no scientific backing and was purely arbitrary. The NASA administration had decided it.