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Commercialization

White House Plan To Defund ISS By 2025 Moves Ahead

By Keith Cowing
NASA Watch
February 11, 2018
Filed under , ,
White House Plan To Defund ISS By 2025 Moves Ahead

The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a commercially run venture, NASA document shows., Washington Post
“The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station into a kind of orbiting real estate venture run not by the government, but by private industry. The White House plans to stop funding for the station after 2024, ending direct federal support of the orbiting laboratory. But it does not intend to abandon the orbiting laboratory altogether, and is working on a transition plan that could turn the station over to the private sector, according to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post. “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,” the document 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.”
Trump mulling privatization of International Space Station: report, The Hill
“The space station program manager of Boeing, which has been involved with the ISS for over 20 years, warned of privatizing the station. “Walking away from the International Space Station now would be a mistake, threatening American leadership and hurting the commercial market as well as the scientific community,” Mark Mulqueen said in a statement to The Post.”
NASA Budgets for a Trip to the Moon, but Not While Trump Is President, NY Times
“According to excerpts from NASA documents obtained by The New York Times before the budget’s release, the administration will propose $19.9 billion in spending for the space agency in fiscal year 2019, which begins on Oct. 1. That is a $370 million increase from the current year, the result of the budget deal reached in Congress last week and signed by Mr. Trump. The budget numbers were confirmed by a person who was not authorized to talk publicly about them. In future years, the administration would like NASA’s spending to drop to $19.6 billion and stay flat through 2023. With inflation, NASA’s buying power would erode, effectively a budget cut each year.”

NASA FY 2019 Budget Hints: ISS Lifespan To Be Limited (Update), earlier post
“- Ending direct federal government support of the ISS by 2025 and transitioning to commercial provision of low Earth orbit (LEO) capabilities;”
Keith’s note: You have to wonder what sort of feedback NASA is allowed to give to the White House on important decision like this given that NASA has had an acting Administrator for over a year. The feedback usually reverts to political appointees at NASA. Jonathan Dimock is one of the people who does this. Last year he listed his qualifications for this job below (Letter posted verbatim):
How Jonathan Dimock Auditioned To Be NASA White House Liaison, earlier post
“? National Aeronautic Space Administration (NASA or Deep Space Exploration Administration or DESA)
o Aside from understanding the technical aspect of NASA and the components that goes into it. I can also understand the economics of launching satellites and supplies into space for both private and government entities. We all know that Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk with Space-X and various investors including Shaun Coleman with Vector Space are racing for more contacts with NASA and others. This is a time when NASA can scale back without huge loss to their operation and we can continue to provide suitable funding for suitable research that benefits the citizens both scientifically and economically. It is not outrageous to believe that a small cut in the $105.5b budget cannot be cut by even a small percentage for a large gain to the taxpayers while providing a big win for the administration.”

Ted Cruz On NASA, ISS, Star Trek, Bridenstine and “OMB Numbskulls”, earlier post
Trump Advisors Send Mixed Signals On ISS Support, earlier post
Reaction To Proposed OMB Space Station Funding Cuts, earlier post
NASA OIG Flunks CASIS – And NASA’s Management of CASIS, earlier post

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.

44 responses to “White House Plan To Defund ISS By 2025 Moves Ahead”

  1. Zen Puck says:
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    One would think that this idea has been around for a long time, and that if some commercial consortium had a business case that resulted in profit, of running the ISS, it would have been in place by now.

    • Donald Barker says:
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      Same example for going to Mars or Moon to do research, mine or anything else. Mars remains 30 years away. Thus we fly in circles.

  2. Mark Thompson says:
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    Florida Senators Nelson and Rubio fully support having OMB run NASA. You get what you ask for. I predict this happens.

    I think an interesting question for this board would be if there will be any takers to run ISS and commercialize it. What about ULA? What about a joint JAXA, ESA, CSA program – it would give them a great opportunity to take the lead on a human spaceflight endeavour. What about a consortium of Apple, Cisco and Spacex or some other deep pocketed tech consortium – perhaps Amazon, Google and Samsung.

    • fcrary says:
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      JAXA, ESA and CSA are already part of the ISS program, along with Roscosmos and NASA. That’s one of the things which would make commercializing NASA’s involvement a pain. NASA can’t unilaterally drop or sell off its commitments to its partners. I also can’t see why any of the US companies you mention would be interested. I’m not sure if ISS has any sources of revenue, let along enough to make it profitable. Now, if NASA wanted to pay a private company to handle station operations, I’m sure someone would be willing.

  3. TheBrett says:
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    I don’t think of that really as a Trump Administration plan. Wasn’t Bolden planning something similar for ISS in the last years of the Obama Administration?

    Without an overall budget increase for NASA and/or cannibalizing the robotic side of space exploration, there’s no money for Orion, SLS, ISS, and another major crewed space exploration project.

    • Terry Stetler says:
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      “Wasn’t Bolden planning something similar for ISS in the last years of the Obama Administration?”

      Yup, this idea goes waayyy… back.. Bolden mentioned commercialization and NASA using commercial stations after ISS. Several times.

      • tutiger87 says:
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        But he was appointed by the last guy in the White House, so he won’t get any credit for that idea…

        • ThomasLMatula says:
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          Funny how no one went ballistic when he proposed it πŸ™‚

          • Terry Stetler says:
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            Exactly; selective memory and responses.

            Give them a choice: SLS, the Moon or ISS – pick ONE.

            And as of course a week ago, SLS is not required for the Moon.

          • ThomasLMatula says:
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            But that is only in the real world, not the NASA world of government wasting.

            In the new budget NASA appears to be receiving $500 million to study how to design an international DSG with its ISS partners for lunar orbit that will require the SLS to deploy it. So in one swoop NASA is getting the Moon, SLS and a new version of the ISS called the DSG πŸ™‚

            Of course for $500 million, even at the cost of working with NASA, you could just place a BA B330 in lunar orbit with the FH and write Deep Space Gateway on it πŸ™‚

          • fcrary says:
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            But without the well-funded design studies, you’ll never know if there was some significantly better alternative to a B330, or if you put it in an optimal orbit. There is a tendency to assume there will be only one chance to do something, so it needs to be carefully studied and done right the first time.

          • ThomasLMatula says:
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            Yes, and that is the reason in economics market based systems are better that command based economies. If one attempt at something fails, like RLVs, the government just gives up. But in a market economy others just give it another try. So there is now a mostly reusable heavy life vehicle that available for space missions. And another one in development.

            So yes, if NASA believes they will only get one attempt like their flagship science missions they will study and study it. But the BA B330 is not be a single space station, it is a modular approach. If one fails you drop it in the ocean, or crash it on the Moon and launch another. If you find an orbit for one that is good you expand it with another module. And if someone else has a better design ready at a competitive price let the launch it.

            This is also why the idea that one needs to be attached to the ISS for testing is nonsense. You just send one to orbit and test it. If things are good then you send a crew to it. If it fails the test you drop it in the ocean and just launch another. It’s probably more risky attaching it to the ISS, where it’s size will change its center of gravity and atmospheric drag than to just place it in an orbit by itself.

            What NASA should do with that $500 million is simply use the old air mail approach and say it will lease space for 3 astronauts a year for ten years on the first station placed in lunar orbit. The $500 million to include transportation expenses. Then watch in amazement at how fast it happens. But that will of course mean the end of SLS, Orion, and the DSG funding, and jobs…

      • TheBrett says:
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        I was in support of it as well. I don’t think it’s necessarily realistic (the overhead costs of ISS are pretty steep for any private operators compared to the commercial gains we are expecting), but at least thought it was something worth looking at.

        Of course, if we had a budget increase for NASA, we could keep an LEO space station and do other crewed stuff in space. But alas.

  4. Bob Mahoney says:
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    Omni Consumer Products (OCP) should run it. They have experience taking over entities that were formerly 100% govt-controlled.

  5. ThomasLMatula says:
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    Two problems with having a commercial entity take over. First, is the high cost of running it. They would have to find a way to reduce that to about $500 million a year instead of $3.5 billion.

    The second is the liability when it fails and needs to be dropped into the ocean. Either NASA and the ISS partners would need to retain it or the commercial entity will have a huge insurance bill.

    The only option I see is some type of govrnment owned corporation, much like the TVA was formed to take over the dam that the U.S. Army was building at Muscle Shoals to make nitrogen for ammunition needs.

    • fcrary says:
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      Well, since it’s supposed to be a National Laboratory, maybe they could use Los Alamos as a model. Operations there are managed by a private company under government contract. The government retains ownership of the facilities. That might handle responsibility for end-of-life disposal and liabilities. That’s not exactly selling ISS off, but I really doubt they would actually find a buyer,

      • DP Huntsman says:
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        Only part of the US segment is a national laboratory; not to mention the Japanese, European, Canadian, and Russian parts.

        • ThomasLMatula says:
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          Yes, that is another part of the challenge, that there are 16 different nations that would have to agree to any commercialization plan.

          Also remember the Russians are not interested with continuing in the ISS. Given how important their modules are to its ability to continue to operate, the partners (mostly the US) would have to include a plan to buy them out of it – probably another $10-20 billion. That will be a huge barrier to commercialization of it.

          No, trying to commercialize the ISS makes no sense economically. Better to admit it was a bad idea and just drop it into the ocean when it finally has a system failure impossible to fix.

          Then use it as a lesson learned when a space project is driven by politics rather than economics and don’t repeat it with the DSG.

          • fcrary says:
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            Actually, you probably want to drop it into the ocean _before_ it has a system failure which is impossible to fix. Isn’t that why Tiangong-1 (the Chinese space station) is going to come down on some random location between 43 deg. north and 43 deg. south? Something went wrong and they are no longer in a position to do a controlled deorbit. This is also something planetary missions have to deal with, when it comes to planetary protection. If you’re going to safely dispose of the spacecraft, you need to do that while you’re still in control of it.

          • ThomasLMatula says:
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            Yes! A lesson we should have learned with Skylab. But like Skylab NASA will probably cling to the ISS hoping it will never fail. Or if it does they will figure out how to fix it.

  6. Daniel Woodard says:
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    If Russia was able to market commercial access to the ISS by tourists, hopefully the US and IPs should be able to negotiate partnerships with commercial users without simply cancelling the program. The latter would be likely to lead to a major disruption in human spaceflight and certainly a reduction in the number of humans working in space.

    • ThomasLMatula says:
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      In the old days that would be true. But by the date funding will run out Bigelow Aerospace will have put up its station and both SpaceX and Boeing will be serving it. NASA and ESA will probably already be leasing space on it. So the reality is that probably no one will even notice the ISS is gone and they will wonder what the fuss was about getting rid of an expensive antique.

  7. Chris says:
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    Commercial Space would find it easier and more profitable to build one from scratch. No need to modernize, deal with international treaties, or astronomical insurance rates.

  8. BlueMoon says:
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    If the ISS is the most valuable, wonderful, useful, productive, bringing-peoples-from-across-the-world-together-for-peace-and-understanding, item ever made by humans, and has decades of useful life left, corporations and wealthy individuals or groups of them will be fighting each other to buy ISS and operate it as paying customers want. So what’s the worry?

  9. John Thomas says:
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    Add some Bigelow Hotel modules and let the Russians and SpaceX sell stays at the ISS.

    • ThomasLMatula says:
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      The overhead of having to run the ISS would make it too expensive. It is far cheaper to build a Bigelow habitat the have the burden of the ISS.

    • Vladislaw says:
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      SpaceX is a transportation service.. do you usually buy hotel stays from a taxi driver?

      • Steve Pemberton says:
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        You can purchase hotel stays on airline websites. But to your point airlines typically don’t own hotels, although that sometimes happens. Probably the best current example is EasyJet which is part of the EasyGroup which among other things owns the EasyHotel chain of budget hotels.

        Either way I expect tourist bookings will be through a third party company like Space Adventures has done for the Soyuz tourist flights to ISS. Presumably Space Adventures will be trying to get the contract for handling any U.S. tourist flights to ISS as well.

        I don’t expect SpaceX to even consider running ISS. However I could see them leasing a berth to attach a tourist module, but only if building and operating a tourist module helps them in their development of modules for future Mars missions.

  10. ThomasLMatula says:
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    The folks advocating for the ISS, which was suppose to only last until 2015 before President Obama extended it, need to accept it has had its day. Like the Saturn V it is outdated and expensive. It is time to move on and just drop it into the ocean when the current funding and agreements run out.

    Let’s just put it into economic terms. NASA has already committed to spend $35 billion on it beyond the originally planned mission. Is it getting $35 billion in value from it? Are their better things the $35 billion could have been spent on? Say science missions to Mars, or other planets? Climate change satellites?

    Or how about human missions to the Moon using FH? $35 billion would pay for 350 FH launches. 350 FH launches could place 4,200 tons on the Moon, 8 times the mass of the ISS. $35 billion would also pay for 70 BA B330 modules. What could NASA do with 70 BA B330s, each holding 6 astronauts (420 total)?

    And BTW, what would that do for employment in Alabama and Florida if you had that level of space activity? Are the members of Congress just being short sighted in opposing this? Or have they not yet been able to really grasp the huge opportunity the new space access model presents to their districts? What would a NASA with an astronaut corp of a 1,000 (minimum needed to fill up those BA B330 modules on a rotating assignment basis) mean for funding to their districts?

    • Vladislaw says:
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      Thomas I do love the excitement you bring to your posts and I totally understand what you are saying. But you have to slow down a bit.

      You write: “Is it getting $35 billion in value from it? “
      So the Nation only enjoys having 2-3 of the 6 crew working on the ISS and it is costing us billions and what is the result? You post none but then in the next breath say, put up 500 times the size of the current station and staff it over 400 people at a time and rotate about 1000 per year… It is costing billions and we are getting no results what would the 1000 in space do with no additional funding to actually do any experiments?

      • ThomasLMatula says:
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        What they would do in terms of experiments would be up to NASA. But currently it appears most of their time is spent keeping ISS operating, while in the Bigelow Aerospace stations, (not one, but multiple stations) the Bigelow employees would be doing that so the NASA crew could do research 100% of the time.

        But I don’t see an Astronaut Corp of 1,000. NASA would just not be able to scale up that way. And that is the key point. The new realities of space launch change the equation completely. NASA simply won’t be the driver anymore. Especially when BFR is flying tourists in the hundreds to orbital resorts.

        So it is as if NASA is arguing how best to use sled dogs for polar exploration while private firms are driving tourists by in snowcats or flying over in helicopters. BTW do you know the ratio of tourists to scientists in the Antarctic?

        Here is are a snapshot of some numbers…

        https://antarcticfudgesicle

        It adds up to a total government population of 1,494 of which 345 are NSF Grantees (researchers).

        https://www.cnn.com/travel/

        Indicates 38,500 tourists for the 2015-2016 season.

        So that is about 100 to 1 ratio.

        And this is with tourism limited to only visits, no resorts or hotels.

        So if the NSF is not able to find work for a 1,000 scientists in the Antarctic, how could NASA hope to find work for 1,000 astronauts?

        Remember, when tipping points are reached things change quickly. Railroads between 1850 and 1870. Passenger airlines between 1945 and 1965. The Internet between 1992 and 2000. Falcon Heavy and soon BFR are going to be a similar tipping point for space, along with the New Glenn. And when it happens the SLS/Orion and ISS will look as out of date as blimps and ox drawn wagons. Already the FH has reduce the cost to LEO from several thousand a pound to 750/lb.The BFR is expected to reduce it to about $50/lb and carry 100-150. That means SpaceX will be able to sell rides to orbit for around $12,500 on the BRF, within the higher end of the price of a trip to the Antarctic is today.

        https://www.swoop-antarctic

        Trips to the Moon could well be in the $60,000 to $100,00 range, about 50% more that a trip to the South Pole ($48,000).

        And at those prices biotech and material science firms will not need to depend on NASA. They could own/lease their own micro-gravity labs and run them the way they want to, not the way NASA wants them to work on the ISS.

        Just consider the implications of the new world opening up….

        • fcrary says:
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          The Antarctic comparison is a little strained. Most of the tourists are on ocean cruises and don’t actually spend much time in Antarctica. If you compared person-days on the ice, it wouldn’t be 100:1. Also, although the cruise ships in question aren’t the largest around, this means the “no resorts or hotels” part isn’t exactly correct.

          • ThomasLMatula says:
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            But a lot of it is also limited by the Antarctic Treaty system. In terms of space a lot of the tourists will probably just be flying in the BFR for the view and to marvel at the antique ISS wondering how anyone could live and work in it πŸ™‚

        • Michael Spencer says:
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          “Trips to the Moon could well be in the $60,000 to $100,00 range”

          I was born 20 years to early.

  11. tutiger87 says:
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    Decent idea, if implemented correctly…. But with folks like Jonathan Dimock (just who is this guy anyway?) and other probably completely unqualified folks in charge of the plan (like in so many other places in this Administration), to paraphrase Darth Vader, you might find my lack of faith disturbing.

  12. Michael Kaplan says:
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    For many ISS supporters in Congress. SS Freedom and then the ISS, was really only about jobs in their districts during development and then during operrations. No one really cares about saving money here. It’s not like NASA launches $3.5B/year into space. It’s jobs. Forgetting about the international players, any plan to gather support on the Hill to “commercialize it” would have to replace the the ISS ops jobs in those districts with something similar. Very unlikely. Then there’s CRS and Commecial Cargo services, too. So if you de-orbit, you kill those programs too. So you’ve just made the business case for a commercial space station even tougher to close. The only scenario that makes any sense would be the GOCO scenarios mentioned here. Given the politics, if you want to go to the Moon/Mars, NASA will need more $$.

    • fcrary says:
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      I’m not too worried about CRS and possibly Commercial Crew. After about five years of resupply runs, CRS is pretty well established. If ISS goes away, SpaceX will still have Falcon 9 and Dragon. So, if there is another customer, they can provide resupply services. If there is a few year gap between ISS and another customer, that capability will still be around. And potential, future customers know that and can plan on it. With luck, commercial crew services will be in the same state by 2025.

      • Michael Kaplan says:
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        Need more than one provider to promote competition, so we need OATK/NG to become a reliable provider and perhaps even SNC make it to the finsh line as well. I believe that Commercial Crew is much more dicey as no one realy knows how much $$ a truly commercial operation would be williing to pay for human presence vs. robotic services. For the extra price to provide a human crew, the same investment in robotic capabilities could provide a better value. We’ll see.

  13. Steve Pemberton says:
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    Whenever ISS is eventually deorbited which of course will make the nightly news, that will be the first time that many people in the U.S. will find out that there ever was such a thing as the International Space Station. I really think a lot of people don’t even know it’s up there.

    • Matthew Black says:
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      Indeed – there are even people who work 24/7 on the internet to try and ‘prove’ that the I.S.S. isn’t even real… They should be beaten, in my opinion. πŸ™

    • Donald Barker says:
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      And we think our society and its collective mental state will get any better as we add a few billion more? Ha.

  14. John Adley says:
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    The only viable option for ISS is invite China on board, or de-orbit.

  15. Donald Barker says:
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    Mistakes made NOW will cause decades of unintended fallout because our government has no real, committed plan to space exploration, human or otherwise). The best short-term memory example is the retirement of the Space Shuttle. And like most things, the only pseudo champions are the district representatives who are impacted the most on paper. As long as no one in power really understands the long game and its implications or cares, we will remain in limbo and scare away most of the future science and engineering replacement work force.