NASA is the only space agency

The US apparently wants to privatize the International Space Station

American funding for the International Space Station (ISS) expires in 2024. Russia has also announced its withdrawal. While companies see this as an opportunity, others see commercial use as nonsense.

The International Space Station (ISS) is the only human outpost that has been permanently inhabited for around twenty years. The laboratory, which has now grown to 97.9 meters in length and weighs 455 tons, orbits the earth at 28,000 km / h at a height of 400 kilometers. The mostly six-person crew carries out basic research. In addition, the ISS delivers fabulous photos in live stream and delights researchers, space enthusiasts and many entrepreneurs and billionaires from Silicon Valley around the world. Although it became apparent last December, some turned up their noses when media such as "The Washington Post" reported: The Trump administration apparently no longer wants to finance the ISS.

However, this does not necessarily mean the end. The American parts of the station should be transferred to a private operator after 2024, according to an internal document from the US space agency Nasa. This is "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" according to their own information. "It is possible that the industry could begin to continue operating certain parts or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform." The goal of the US administration under Donald Trump is to make the near-earth orbit an environment for “non-state human space flight” in which “NASA is one of many customers,” both newspapers cited.

According to the internal document, NASA itself intends to use its resources for exploring the deeper universe in the future. In doing so, it is following the direction Trump announced in December on the other side of the ISS: The US should send astronauts back to the moon and again to Mars. A new space station is to be built for this purpose. This so-called "Deep Space Gateway" is supposed to orbit the moon and from there enable landings on the earth's satellite and flights deeper into space.

Going it alone is impossible

If the announcements about the US withdrawal and plans to privatize the ISS are confirmed, this raises the question of whether the Americans are offending their partners. Since the ISS is a multinational project, neither a state nor a space agency can decide on its own authority about its continued existence. In addition to NASA, the Russian space agency Roskosmos, the European ESA, the Canadian CSA and Japan's Jaxa are also involved. Germany, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland also took part in the 1998 agreement. Most recently, the members had promised funding until 2024.

According to reports, NASA alone pays three to four billion dollars a year to operate the ISS. Russia is the second largest donor. According to this, from the Russian point of view in particular, the USA cannot alone decide on future privatization. However, Roskosmos had previously announced that it would only co-finance the ISS until 2024, then decouple its own modules and build a separate space station from them. How far these plans have come is unclear. One thing is certain, however: Russia has already promised the USA that it will work on the new “Deep Space Gateway” space station around the moon.

"The ISS is not profitable"

Nevertheless, the Russian space expert Ivan Moiseyev describes the alleged plans of the USA to privatize the ISS as "nonsense". "It won't work," he said, according to the Ria Novosti agency. The operating costs are so high that only states can bear them. «Companies work for their profit, that is their only goal. But the ISS does not bring a profit, because the expenses are significantly higher than any conceivable income, ”said the head of the Moscow Institute for Space Policy.

Space expert Andrei Ionin from the Russian Academy of Sciences commented less negatively on the report. Sooner or later the service of the ISS has to be stopped. One can therefore only thank the USA for letting them know many years in advance. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not yet officially commented on the matter.

So far there has been no outcry among the researchers. Physics professor Werner Schmutz, who himself ran a research project on the ISS, is relaxed in an interview with the NZZ. He is not afraid of influencing research, he said on Monday. However, if the space on the ISS was previously partially free for the researchers, an additional amount would have to be included in the case of privatization. Of course, this must also meet customer requirements.

Privatization enables progress

From the American point of view, privatization would in fact consistently pursue the course that Republican President George W. Bush originally initiated. In 2008, NASA left it for the first time to the private space companies SpaceX and Orbital ATK to supply the ISS with material. Bush's successor Barack Obama commissioned SpaceX and Boeing in 2014 to develop systems that would also bring astronauts to the ISS. According to "The Washington Post", NASA wants to intensify such partnerships with companies over the next seven years in order to be able to disengage from the ISS project in 2024.

The struggle for lucrative contracts promises a technical development boost and, in some cases, cost reductions. From the moon landing in 1969 to the retirement of the three remaining shuttles in 2011, billions of dollars have been invested in research projects, but the technology has essentially remained at the level of twenty to forty years ago. For decades it was a matter of course to dispose of the rocket's lowest drive stage - the most expensive part with the most engines - after every flight. It's like building a Boeing 747, flying from A to B once and disposing of the entire aircraft, said Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, in an interview. If you manage to reuse the Boeing several times, a passenger ticket will only cost a fraction.

What sounds logical, was considered crazy by experts until SpaceX achieved “the impossible” in 2015: For the first time in space history, the lowest stage of the Falcon 9 rocket returned after the initial spark, landed precisely in Cape Canaveral and was reusable. Jeff Bezos' “Blue Origin”, which has so far concentrated on the further development of space tourism, also picked up on this technical innovation. The New Shepard missile has been reused over five times.

Boeing also emphasizes the importance of technical progress and believes it should be one of the most important considerations of governments to secure them. This will make the commercial use of the lower earth orbit possible, said spokesman Jerry Drelling when asked by the NZZ. In spite of this, or precisely because of this, Boeing warns that companies should only leave “a rare national good” when the private sector is ready to maintain the ISS. Otherwise, it could have "devastating consequences for American leadership in space."

The problem is politics

In contrast to authorities and institutions, companies in the space industry in particular are forced to work in a cost-efficient, agile and innovative manner. The around four billion dollars in private investments in the USA in 2017 show that there is great potential here. The main problem with any privatization of the ISS is ideological or political in nature: partial commercial use can hardly be implemented without the consent of all contractual partners. It is not clear whether a consensus will ever be reached between the USA and Russia on the question of privatization.