The International Space Station (ISS) could soon fall into private hands, according to a statement made by NASA official on Thursday, Aug. 18. The agency mulls the possibility of handing off control of the orbital laboratory to a commercial company by the mid-2020s. NASA has revealed the plan during a press conference focused on future manned missions to Mars.
“NASA’s trying to develop economic development in low-earth orbit. Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-earth orbit, so that research can continue in low-earth orbit,” said Bill Hill, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development.
The agency did not revealed any further details about the possible ISS handover, not even specifying the potential buyers. Moreover, as the station is jointly managed by international partners, it is unclear how will they react to this proposition. The ISS could be transferred to a commercial company as a whole or it could be end in handing over just NASA’s part – this issue also needs to be determined.
NASA’s announcement coincidences with a statement made by the Russian side last week about the possibility of cutting down its ISS crew from three to two. While Roscosmos and NASA are committed to maintain the current level of space station operations until 2024, the latest declarations from both sides seem to prove that these two biggest ISS players are trying to pull out of the orbital outpost and it may even come sooner as expected.
NASA spends a hefty $4 billion every year on space station operations and transportation, what is about 20 percent of the agency’s annual budget. The agency is continuously being criticized for allotting too much funds for Earth science and low-Earth orbit operations instead of focusing on deep space missions. Therefore, handing over the ISS activities to a private sector could help save NASA funds necessary for the planned crewed endeavors to asteroids and Mars.
While the possible handover is still in its infancy, there is already one entity that currently manages some activities aboard the ISS for NASA. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a US government-funded national laboratory, is managing some operations regarding research aboard the space station.
It is also worth noticing that in 1999 the MirCorp company was created that was a private operator of the Russian Mir space station. The company used the station as a commercial platform, for a variety of space operations like privately funded cargo resupply missions, manned expeditions and even spacewalks. Thus the idea of a commercially owned space station isn’t new in the history of space operations.