In January, reports leaked that the Trump administration wanted to cut off funding to the International Space Station after 2025, and this weekend, The Washington Post obtained a government document suggesting the station should be completely privatized by 2024. The agency's fiscal year 2019 budget request is due to be released at noon Eastern time.
Turning the ISS over to corporations sounds drastic, but it's not really all that different from what experts expected, according to John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the George Washington University. He told Newsweek that the budget language specifies no direct government funding for the station beginning in 2025, but that "the word direct is the operative word there." It leaves NASA able to indirectly fund the station by paying commercial space companies for their services.
That's not new territory; NASA already hires SpaceX and Orbital ATK to deliver supplies to the ISS and the agency is hoping to take a similar approach to crew transportation later this year, in order to stop hitching rides on Russia's Soyuz capsules. "These documents talk about seamless transition," Logsdon said. "No one is talking about turning off the lights and dumping the thing in the Pacific Ocean."
Which, let's remember, will be the station's ultimate fate, and likely within about a decade—NASA currently believes the ISS can remain in operation until 2028 before becoming unsafe. "We're only talking about a few extra years," Logsdon said. But this isn't the first sign NASA has wanted to redirect its ISS budget during those years. The agency spends between $3 and $4 billion on the space lab every year, and that's money it can't put toward, say, sending humans to the moon or to Mars.
A non-profit, non-governmental organization called The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, already works with NASA to bring experiments from companies and academic researchers up to the space station. "What we're seeing is increased demand and interest in using the platform, but things take time, science takes time, projects take time, innovation takes time," Cynthia Bouthot, who heads up the commercial innovation department of the organization, told Newsweek. "For us, it's really that we want to see that ultimate return to the American taxpayer, and any sort of artificial cut-off day as opposed to a natural transition would likely dampen that ability."
Logsdon says two commercial companies have expressed interest in a long-term low-Earth orbit space station: Axiom Space, a company planning to build a replacement for the ISS for space tourism, manufacturing and advertising purposes among others, and Bigelow Aerospace, which already has an inflated habitat module attached to the ISS. One of the key draws is manufacturing pharmaceuticals, which can be done more cheaply in microgravity.
But Logsdon says neither company can likely afford a $4 billion-a-year price tag right now, and Tommy Sanford, executive director of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a coalition of companies working in space, told Newsweek that the companies considering a station would likely rather build their own facilities. "I haven't seen anyone talk about essentially leasing the entire ISS," he said. He was pleased to see $150 million included in the proposed NASA budget for supporting commercial activities in low-Earth orbit as a way to prevent a gap between the ISS and whatever comes next.
The 2024 cut-off isn't arbitrary; that's about the same time frame on which the U.S.'s international partners are currently committed to funding the space station. Russia, 22 European countries, Japan and Canada pitch in about a fifth of the ISS's budget, but Logsdon says he doesn't expect they'll be sad to see the station go. "In a sense, I think they'll feel a sense of relief as long as we also reach out to them to engage them in the next things in exploration," he said.
Just like NASA, they have other things to do with their time and money. "Those space agencies are really research and development organizations that want to build new things," Logsdon added. "Just doing experiments on an existing facility is not very exciting for them."
Right now, NASA is working without an administrator (Trump's nominee for the post has yet to be approved by Congress) or a deputy administrator (no nominee there yet). The budget plan represents the leadership of the White House's space council, created by an executive order and led by Vice President Pence. "It's not like there's no adult in charge," Logsdon said, although he expects the White House to tackle confirmations next, once the budget is settled.
More from Newsweek