The proposal was unpopular with many scientists, astronauts, and politicians, particularly lawmakers whose home states house NASA facilities that support ISS operations. But the Trump administration doesn’t appear to be backing down on the plan, and it has a new spokesperson: Jim Bridenstine, the freshly sworn-in administrator of NASA.
Bridenstine has been in talks with “many large corporations” about forming a consortium that would assume responsibility for ISS operations and keep the station running as a commercial platform, he said an interview with The Washington Post published Tuesday.
“We’re in a position now where there are people out there that can do commercial management of the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said.
While the idea of privatizing some or all of the ISS is not new, the Trump administration is the first to formally endorse it in policy proposals. Bridenstine didn’t name any companies, and acknowledged that convincing private businesses to take on such an expensive venture won’t be easy. But the country has seven years to figure it out, he said, and “we have forced the conversation.”
Indeed, Bridenstine’s remarks in the Post will not be the last on this matter. But where the conversation goes from here will be interesting to see in the coming months—especially because the White House is largely alone in thinking this plan will work.
Last month, Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, told the Senate that he doesn’t think there’s a “sufficient business case” for commercial companies to take on the significant cost of managing the ISS, which requires between $3 billion and $4 billion a year. On top of that, it doesn’t seem like anyone’s even interested. “Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans,” Martin said. He added that off-loading ISS operations likely wouldn’t save NASA as much money as the feds think, since the government would probably still have to pay for transporting astronauts and cargo to the station, which costs tens of millions of dollars a trip.
“The sooner that Congress and the administration agree on a path forward for the ISS, the better NASA will be able to plan,” Martin said.
Such agreement is unlikely. Bridenstine will likely find few friends on this issue in Congress, where the fate of the ISS falls not on party lines, but on state lines, creating some rare bipartisan opposition to the Trump administration. Among the most vocal critics of the White House proposal are Bill Nelson, the one-time astronaut and Democratic senator from Florida, home of the Kennedy Space Center that launches cargo to the station, and Ted Cruz, the Republican senator from Texas, home of Johnson Space Center and ISS mission control. Both have spent the last several months railing against the administration’s proposal to shut the space station down so soon. They and other supporters of the ISS say the orbital lab is a valuable hub for testing technologies that benefit humans on Earth and may, someday, keep them alive on long-duration missions to Mars.