Even by the standards of a business-happy Republican Party, privatizing the International Space Station — the Trump administration’s latest scheme — is a conspicuously terrible idea. Since taking office as NASA’s administrator in April, Jim Bridenstine (previously a member of Congress from Oklahoma with no scientific background) has pushed this scheme, most recently in an interview this week with the Washington Post.
NASA says it will save money by “leveraging private industry capacity, innovation, and competitiveness.” But it’s not just Democrats who are opposed to Bridenstine’s plan. None other than Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) held hearings in May and June to voice opposition.
The ISS, as the space station is commonly known, is by far the largest man-made object ever to orbit the Earth. NASA, the Russian space agency, and 13 other countries built and run it jointly. It took 37 space shuttle flights and five Russian rockets to launch its various components. The station’s pressurized interior — the part astronauts live and work in — is about the size of the inside of a 747. Together with its large arrays of solar panels that provide power, the station would cover a football field.
It orbits some 240 miles above the Earth’s surface, traveling around the globe every 90 minutes. Over 230 individuals have visited the space station. People have lived on board continuously since November 2000. The newest crew, an American, a Russian, and a German, is scheduled dock with the ISS on June 8, having left Kazakhstan on a Soyuz rocket — currently the only way for humans get there — two days prior.
At Trump’s alma mater, Wharton, they presumably teach that successful businesses require customers who want to buy their product. The ISS lacks enough such customers. (Even though some tourists have paid their own way, each forking over between $20 million and $40 million for the privilege, and South Korea and Malaysia have paid the Russians to take their citizens to the ISS.) One can send an experiment up to the ISS for as little as $15,000, with an educational discount.
The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, studied the issue and concluded that it “is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025.” The only way a commercial entity could run a space station, they found, would be with a substantial government subsidy. Such a subsidy does not fit the standard definition of “privatization” — except insofar as it would allow business cronies of political leaders to line their pockets at taxpayer expense, as in other recent privatization efforts, like the expanded use of private military contractors.
It’s difficult to come up with a business model for the space station that doesn’t either guarantee corporate profit — obviating any notional cost savings — or encourage business managers to cut corners, potentially endangering the safety of astronauts.
It’s exactly the kind of ideologically motivated, scientifically and technically ill-advised initiative that many senators feared Bridenstine would make. It took the Senate more than seven months to confirm him. Though the final vote was along party lines, many fellow Republicans who voted for him held their noses as they did so. As Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) put it: “I wish the president would have nominated a space professional to run NASA.”
Some research operations on the ISS have already been privatized. In 2011, in response to criticism that not enough science was being done on the station, NASA awarded a 10-year, $136 million contract to a new nonprofit corporation called the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), which manages more than half the research done on the ISS.
CASIS is happily marketing the ISS: “This unique microgravity research platform is available to U.S. researchers from small companies, research institutions, Fortune 500 companies, government agencies, and others, all interested in leveraging microgravity to solve complex problems on Earth.”
Alas, very few researchers have been interested in “leveraging microgravity.” A January report by NASA’s inspector general found that from September 2013 to April 2017, CASIS used only half of the research hours it was allocated. The Trump administration’s proposal would vastly expand the role of private corporations in running the ISS: It’s the difference, roughly, between putting a middleman in charge of renting out a block of hotel rooms and putting a company in charge of the whole hotel.
As the inspector general warned the Senate in May: “Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the Station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the Agency’s current plan.”
What was the space station supposed to be for?
Privatization aside, the International Space Station has never lived up to its hype. In his 1984 State of the Union Speech, President Ronald Reagan directed “NASA to develop a permanently manned space station and to do it within a decade.” The station would, he said, produce “leaps in our research in science, communications, in metals, and in lifesaving medicines which could be manufactured only in space.”
NASA launched the station’s first module in 1998, four years after Reagan’s deadline; it didn’t finish it until 2011. It’s hard to come up with a precise total cost — the station’s budget was mixed together with the shuttle program for many years, and various official sources are careless about adjusting for inflation. But we can take these figures as a floor: NASA spent $11.2 billion in the first decade of the program and an additional $75 billion from 1994 to 2013, according to the agency’s inspector general. Reagan had said it would cost $8 billion.
Despite the enormous sums spent building it, and NASA’s promotion of the space station, none of Reagan’s promised “leaps in our research” have come about. As science journalist Charles Seife put it a few years ago:
Most [ISS experiments] are published in third- or fourth-tier journals, if they’re published at all. Compare that to the mountains of seminal publications (not to mention a Nobel Prize or two) coming from unmanned spacecraft, and the difference is stark. If you factor in cost, the comparison becomes outrageous.
The most egregious example of mediocre science on the ISS might be an experiment conducted by Malaysia’s first astronaut to see how microgravity affects the “flavor, taste, texture, freshness, spice, sweetness and general acceptability” of Malaysian food. NASA would surely claim that its researchers are more serious-minded than their Malaysian counterpart, whom it dismissed as a tourist, but the thin scientific veneer on his trip is revealing.
Even as the ISS has proved a scientific disappointment, small unmanned satellites in low Earth orbit are in a golden age. A startup named Planet, founded by three former NASA engineers in 2010, now operates more than 150 satellites of various sizes that gather pictures of the Earth. Cubesats, which are at most about half a cubic foot in volume, are cheap to build and cheap to launch. They are being used to tackle the sorts of experiments that people once thought would occur on the ISS, including testing artificial gravity or culturing cells and growing protein crystals.
What is it actually for?
The ISS is not pointless. There are experiments that cannot be done by robots: experiments on people. The absence of gravity tends to make us frail in multiple ways. Understanding and countering those effects is important if humans are to explore space. Better engineering knowledge about how to safely run a spacecraft for years (doing such things as recycling the fluids created on board to make potable water, maintaining a breathable atmosphere, and protecting humans from exposure to radiation) is also something that can only be gained by running the ISS or something like it.
Elon Musk may want to colonize Mars one day, but the principal customers for such research, at present, are NASA and other governmental space agencies. A commercial intermediary would be superfluous, serving only to profit as it brokered NASA’s services to itself.
The other justification for the space station is the “international” in its name. The ISS has hardly been a “model of peaceful international cooperation [that] ... has exceeded all of its original goals and accomplished many things that were never envisioned,” as NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations recently claimed in testimony to Congress. But in a time of strained relations with Russia, some cooperation is better than none at all. Even as tension over Ukraine, election meddling, and other issues has grown, the US and Russia have maintained a close working relationship in space.
The diplomatic impact of the ISS is difficult to measure. It may not be worth $3 billion to $4 billion a year on its own. But it certainly is without commercial value on that scale. If that amount of money is worth spending, it must be government money. What’s more, the existence of the word “international” in the space station’s name reflects how privatization would also threaten existing commitments to our Canadian, Japanese, and European partners.
Was it worth it?
“Public or private?” is the wrong question to ask. The fundamental debate about the future of the ISS ought to be over human exploration of the solar system. If you think such exploration is a worthy endeavor, then it follows that the government should continue to fund the space station. If you think sending a person to Mars is a waste of time, energy, and money, then it follows that the space station is also a waste and should be decommissioned as soon as is safely practicable.
There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of this question. The pragmatic argument that robots can acquire much more knowledge per unit of money in harsh, distant environments is sound. For some, it is definitive. If Elon Musk wants so badly to go to Mars, then let him pay for it, the parsimonious appropriator argues, mindful of the many compelling needs on Earth. The spiritual argument that the drive to explore is noble, that exploring as a polity gives society collective purpose and individuals hope for the future, is deeply moving to some.
Moreover, the argument from national greatness has been largely dormant since Richard Nixon and Leonid Brezhnev decided to call off the space race. If the Chinese government follows through on its plans to launch a manned space station by 2022 and land an astronaut on the moon, such nationalist arguments may acquire renewed force.
NASA’s management of the ISS has been flawed in many ways. The solution to that is either to scuttle it entirely or to fix NASA’s long-simmering problems. Privatizing the space station is a foolish middle path, akin to King Solomon slicing the baby in two. It would result in a more expensive and less effective ISS — which would be an impressive accomplishment indeed, though hardly an inspiring one.
Konstantin Kakaes is a fellow at New America. He is the author of The Pioneer Detectives, a book about space exploration. Before joining New America, Kakaes was a Knight science journalism fellow at MIT. Kakaes was the Economist’s bureau chief in Mexico City from 2005 to 2009, and before that covered science and technology for the Economist from London.
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