So now the White House wants to privatize the International Space Station

I realize we’ve made some significant progress in shrinking the federal government over the past year or so, but some suggestions are really out there. And by “out there” in this case, I mean out in low Earth orbit.

The White House is floating a plan to cut federal funding for the International Space Station by 2024 (which would just coincidentally line up with the end of Trump’s second term if he wins again) and shop the project out to the private sector. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if this is coming up now because of Elon Musk’s adventure with his red Tesla Roadster last week, but the plan will probably run into some serious glitches. (Associated Press)

Could the International Space Station become a commercial venture run by private industry?

That is the wish of the White House, which hopes to end funding for the costly program within a few years, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

The US plan, the paper said, involves privatizing the ISS, a low-orbit space station piloted by the US space agency NASA and developed jointly with its Russian counterpart.

The station has allowed international crews — notably in collaboration with the Canadian, European and Japanese space agencies — to pursue scientific research in the environment of a low Earth orbit.

Speaking purely in general terms of conservative government theory, we should probably applaud the idea, at least in abstract terms. Taking responsibilities off the plate of the federal government wherever feasible and turning them over to private industry (where competition and innovation can generally accomplish most tasks cheaper and more efficiently) is a laudable goal. But applying that concept to the ongoing operation of the ISS is problematic from a number of angles.

Time Magazine was out almost immediately with a list of three reasons this likely wouldn’t work and probably shouldn’t be tried. I don’t agree entirely with all of them, but they raise some valid concerns. Their key points are:

  • Privatizing the Space Station is a fiscal loser
  • Privatizing the Space Station is a scientific loser
  • Privatizing the Space Station is even a political loser

The first two are tied together. Space exploration has not, to date, been a profit-generating enterprise. And NASA never really looked at it as such. True, there have been scientific advancements achieved from such research which later went on to be used in the private sector, but the original work was a combination of pure research and the achievement of political/military goals. Neither of these makes anyone rich and they both rely on the generosity of the taxpayers.

In the private sector, most estimates indicate that SpaceX has probably not made a profit yet, nor are they likely to in the near future. And that’s a business model which actually relies on the possibility of selling their services to the government in many cases, charging the taxpayers to put hardware (and eventually people) into space. Elon Musk is, fortunately, rich enough and sufficiently influential to keep dumping cash into his pet space projects, but that well would run dry eventually if he had to figure out a way to earn a living by running the ISS. Even space tourism is severely limited for the time being because there just isn’t enough room for many tourists onboard.

As to the political question, that’s a bit overstated in my opinion. Yes, if Florida began losing their space industry it would be very unpopular and could cost the party suggesting this scheme some votes. But overall, I think the voters are more interested in actual success. Look how popular that last SpaceX launch was, and it didn’t really do anything of substance. If the work is getting done and we’re not losing astronauts, most of the general public will be happy no matter who is doing it.

Still, the other considerations should be enough to give us pause on this privatization plan. There’s also the troubling fact that the United States isn’t the only country in control of that station. We still have to deal with the Russians, as well as the European and Japanese space agencies. I’m a big fan of privatization where it can be managed, but this might be an awfully heavy lift to pull off.

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