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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."

Photo Credit: International Space Station/Wikimedia Commons

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  • timbo||

    I couldn't help but feel like the whole Musk launching the Tesla into space wasn't a giant FU to the tax payer.

  • ||

    Why? No tax payer money was involved in building it.

  • Mark22||

    Are you trying to be funny?

  • TheWay1||

    No he isn't being funny. He is telling the truth. It was a certification launch that was 100% funded by private money of SpaceX. (and Musk giving up his personal car)

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    I'll be damned if I'm going to look up in the clear night sky and watch the Taco Bell Space Station flying overhead.

  • Libertymike||

    How about if it is the KFC / Taco Bell Space Station?

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Now you're headed in the right direction.

  • timbo||

    What if the space station could take pictures of people doing stuff in their yards at your request. Let's make this whole drone thing global.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    So, the KFC / Pizza Hut Space Station?

  • GILMORE™||

    I vaguely recall that Infinite Jest posited the Cola Wars would be ended when coca cola fired nuclear weapons into the milky way, exploding a series of small stars, emblazoning the night sky with "Coke is It" for all eternity.

  • Libertymike||

    NIX NASA!

    Shutter the mofo.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Another victory for Trump! #MOGA

  • Palatki||

    I'm sorry; make WHAT great again?

  • Bacon-Magic glib reasonoid||

    Nitty girtty was my girlfriend's name in school.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Is it just me or does that last paragraph seems a little tacked on at the last second?

    As for the plans to stop federal funding the ISS after 2024, that's been the plan since the George W. Bush administration. The only thing Trump is proposing that's slightly different is allowing commercial entities to use it. Before the plan, IIRC, was to just hand it over to the Europeans, Russian, and Japanese to either continue to utilize it, or if they weren't interested or unable to keep it operating safely, de-orbit it. I'd say commercializing it is the better option.

  • gormadoc||

    Yeah, the current plan is to design a replacement with the Russians. If that happens, the American module will be obsolete, so why not sell it? I'd be surprised if a private company offered more money than the Europeans or Chinese would.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I'd swear that last paragraph WAS tacked on, that my first read didn't include it, and I only went looking after seeing your comment.

    And no Alt-text. Shame!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    For several years, NASA's official policy was that as soon as the ISS was built, they would de-orbit it, because they had no use for it, and the only regular use for the space shuttle was tending to it, so they didn't need that expensive pig either. Memory says the cost of the space shuttle averaged over all its mission came to $1B per mission. They probably could have launched everything on Saturn Vs for less cost.

    If the other countries don't like it, they can fund it all or back off and see if the private company takes their bluff seriously or lets it burn up.

  • Alcibiades||

    One billion dollars per launch for SLS is a low-ball estimate. Other estimates put launch costs much higher. They're building something that will be too expensive to use.

    Oh, estimated overhead costs for NASA range from around 50% to above 60%, so around half of the SLS budget is probably disappearing into the NASA bureaucracy.

  • IceTrey||

    The shuttle allowed for the launching and subsequent servicing of the Hubble telescope. While no doubt it was more expensive than it should have been the science it has allowed has been priceless and has profoundly changed how humans understand existence.

  • SQRLSY One||

    Let's mount an improbability drive (PRIVATELY FUNDED, yes) onto the Government-Almighty-danged THANG, and send it for a tour of ALL of the galaxies!!! To infinity and beyond!!!!!

    (Maybe, SOME AwEsome Place out There, in the Beyond the Beyond, it can find SOME way to fabricate or locate the Unicorn Farts that will...

    BALANCE THE FED BUDGET!!!!)

  • Mark22||

    Let's mount an improbability drive (PRIVATELY FUNDED, yes) onto the Government-Almighty-danged THANG

    Come on, at least give it a Bistromathic Drive, or the more advanced model, the CBO-mathic Drive.

  • Alcibiades||

    So, NASA has SLS to replace the shuttle, it's spent around $23 billion already, its years behind schedule, should have been ready for its first launch two years ago and completion if the program is years away. Oh yeah, and its the "one use and throw away" model straight out of the 1960. Also, if and when they actually build it, estimated launch costs are one to three billion dollars making it too expensive to fire it up more than once a year.

    Now compare SpaceX, a company 16 years old, designs and builds its own re-useable rockets, including the Falcon Heavy, in house, for around $500 million dollars. Demonstrates proof of concept by actually launching the thing and will make it available to customers for around $90 million making an approx 30% profit.

  • SQRLSY One||

    You are correct!

    Sad to say, no end to the SLS is in sight... Too many Congress-Critters have the SLS-building pork spread out into their home districts. This kind of crap has been going on for military hardware for ??? at least 50 years...

    "Make sure to spread out the supply chain to include at least 40 out of the 50 states, so that this program can NEVER be killed!" I do not now HOW huge the numbers are, but a TON of shit got built, that the military didn't really want or need!

  • Marcus Aurelius||

    "Privatization done badly is bad."

    Why? If you're adding the sunk cost caveat at the end, it really shouldn't matter how the privatization is done. Get it off the books, and if someone or someones can turn a trick off of it, Yahtzee. If not, less money out of my paycheck. I won't be sad to see the death of specials on sixth grade science projects being selected to be done in space.

  • ||

    There word 'direct' in "end direct federal support" is important here. In the 90s operational support for the Space Shuttle (e.g. the 'standing army') was bundled under a joint venture called United Space Alliance (not to be confused with United Launch Alliance, a separate JV). It was organized as a commercial company and handled a lot of overhead internally. Was it a "done badly"? It wasn't done 'well' but it wasn't done 'badly' because the problem was in the underlying design of the Shuttle itself, not how USA was organized. So you can still have the ISS look exactly the way it does now and simply work to reduce the Federal portion of the payment and reorganize the rest under an entity that can better handle commercial contracts. This was a BUDGET document, not an Authorization or Appropriation document. So when it speaks of ISS it is talking about a budget line item, not a physical thing in space.

    Axiom Space plans on docking their first commercial station segment with the ISS in 2020. Their financial backers feel that the market analysis is sufficient to justify investing their own money. Same for Bigelow/ULA, Nanoracks, and Orbital Sciences.

  • BunkerBill||

    I have to check my bookmarks, it seems that when I try to go to Reason.com, which is supposed to be a libertarian site, I seem to stumble into to some leftist site by mistake. The author is AGAINST privatizing the space station, did I read that right?

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