Trump Wants to Privatize the International Space Station

Which would be cool. But it probably won't happen anyway. So everybody chill.


The Trump administration is going to think about thinking about considering ending federal funding for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025. Cue a bunch of people freaking out about the prospect of space station privatization.

Before we get into the nitty girtty—a note: if I had a nickel for every major goal set by an American president for the space program with a time horizon of 6 to 20 years, I'd have enough money to continue funding the ISS well past 2025. Every administration comes up with its own blueprint/roadmap/guidebook to go to the moon/Mars/Alpha Centauri with all of the major deadlines conveniently kicking in long after the relevant president is somewhere on a yacht moored outside his presidential library. These plans rarely come to fruition, and even incremental steps are frequently reversed.

Here's the plan, such as it is: "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," a document obtained by The Washington Post 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."

Today's shiny new budget contains $150 million in fiscal year 2019 (and more slated for later) "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."

Gradually handing over low Earth orbit to the private sector has been the incremental policy of at least three administrations, though it has been implemented in fits and starts, due largely to powerful senators who would like to keep lucrative space earmarks intact in their districts.

The International Space Station is a little trickier for reasons that are right there in the name—a lot of other nations have stakes in the sky hotel/lab, and it's not at all clear they'd be keen rejigger their elaborately negotiated agreements.

Pretty much every step of space privatization has been accompanied by this type of hysteria. There's something about space that's transpartisan in the worst possible way, bringing together the "no one would ever do pure science if it weren't for the state" lefties with the "American greatness requires that we build huge rockets with flags on them" righties. In fact, last week's successful Space X Falcon Heavy rocket launch ticks an awful lot of the boxes that the old school shuttle launches once did, and once we stick human beings on top of on those things, we're pretty much all of the way there.

Now, privatization done badly is bad. That should go without saying, but it doesn't. So let's say it. Privatization done badly is bad. Handing off the United States' stake in the ISS to an entity insufficiently prepared to run it properly would not be good stewardship of a valuable asset. (Also worth noting: Boeing, a private company, currently operates the space station for NASA, for $3–4 billion a year. And Boeing, unsurprisingly, thinks that the goal of ending federal funding to operate the space station is a really, really bad idea.)

The secret NASA docs say that the agency "will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry." Great idea.

In fact, this wouldn't even be the first time a cost-cutting government fobbed a space station off on a private firm. When the Russians were looking to shed some space costs in the late 1990s, they leased the Mir space station to an American outfit with plans to use it as a hub for space tourism. The lease was modeled after a terrestrial real estate lease. In the end, that experiment was not a success, but given that the alternative really was to let the thing burn up in the atmosphere—to actually be deorbited—it was a reasonable gamble.

I do want to send a creepy, stalkery note to Ted Cruz that consists solely of the pages dealing with the sunk cost fallacy ripped out of an old economics textbook. Because this? This right here misses the point rather spectacularly: "As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can to is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead."