15 February, 2018
US President Donald Trump's administration wants private businesses to run the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025, but that's "unrealistic" according to the head of the European Space Agency (ESA). According to an internal NASA document acquired by The Washington Post, the ISS could transition from being used by the USA government to becoming a privately-operated real estate venture.
The proposal has stated that given budget constraints and competing priorities at the USA space agency, it is not the administration's priority to develop one more huge space telescope soon after the completion of the James Webb telescope that costs $ 8.8 billion.
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.
NASA now spends about $3 billion a year on station operations and support, maintaining the U.S. segment of the outpost, supplying spare parts and other critical cargo and buying seats aboard Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts to and from the outpost.
Another company, Bigelow Aerospace, builds habitable space structures and also is involved with the Space Station, specifically with its Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) which is attached to the ISS.
The space station is an worldwide partnership, and it's not clear what privatizing the USA portion would mean for the other countries.
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Wörner sees a continuing demand for research in Earth orbit and predicted: "We will need experiments under conditions of weightlessness in low earth orbit beyond 2024".
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The proposed $19.9 billion budget - $10.5 billion - is earmarked for "an innovative and sustainable campaign of exploration and lead the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilisation followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations".
The NASA document indicates the administration "will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry" as it hammers out a fuller plan.
The proposal doesn't say what companies would take over or what private enterprise might want to do with the station. Both nations are required for the space station to function with any degree of safety using separate flight control centers. They will boost the lab's crew back to six, joining Expedition 55 commander Anton Shkaplerov, NASA astronaut Scott Tingle and Japanese physician-astronaut Norishige Kanai.
An artist's rendering of NASA's Space Launch System rocket taking flight.
NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, called the plan "very exciting" with lots of potential, despite what he said were some hard decisions that went into it.