Science & Tech

Set NASA Free

NASA astronaut Mark Vande Hei outside the International Space Station during a spacewalk, October 10, 2017. (NASA/Johnson Space Center)
The Trump administration’s plan to make the International Space Station semi-private would cut the space agency’s massive costs while preserving its ability to do essential research.

The Trump administration has proposed shifting the International Space Station from a NASA-exclusive research facility to a semi-public, semi-private one. Its plan would nix all government funding for the ISS by 2025 and award at least $150 million per year to NASA to help with the transition.

This would be a welcome development, and it’s exactly the sort of plan that other overfunded, inefficient federal agencies ought to follow. By opening the station up to private entities, it protects essential NASA research while cutting the agency’s costs, which are immense. In 2017, NASA spent $1.4 billion on the station. Of that total, $1.1 billion was to fund system operations and maintenance. Just $347 million went to research.

Nevertheless, many have been quick to criticize the plan. Per Vox, it would turn the ISS into a “commercial outpost.” The Washington Post quoted a source complaining that the ISS “isn’t built for profit-seeking.” Wired suggested the research vessel could become a “floating hotel.”

The ISS certainly wasn’t built to be a profit-generating commercial outpost — but the administration’s plan wouldn’t turn it into one. Today, NASA is the sole U.S. customer of the station, and it is joined in its patronage by other government-agency “customers” from Russia, Japan, Europe, and Canada. The U.S. pays its share of operations on the station, and thus has permission to conduct activities on board. Trump’s budget proposes that NASA unload the U.S.’s financial burden onto private companies, thereby permitting those companies to conduct research aboard the station and enabling a means by which NASA can pay to use these companies’ infrastructure in order to conduct its own research when it needs to. Such a move would alleviate NASA’s massive overhead cost without limiting the agency’s capacity to do its work.

So reducing the NASA plan to a “profit-seeking” and “anti-science” endeavor is unfair. Indeed, NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) programs stand as evidence that this approach works. In 2004, in the aftermath of the Columbia tragedy, President George W. Bush limited the remit of the flagging Space Shuttle program to the completion of the construction of the ISS. Asked how NASA would send crew and equipment to the station, Bush merely directed NASA to “pursue commercial opportunities.” Out of this were born the COTS and CRS programs, which, respectively, assisted the development of private-sector vehicles and contracted those vehicles to deliver payloads. Markets work, even in space.

The ISS certainly wasn’t built to be a profit-generating commercial outpost — but the administration’s plan wouldn’t turn it into one.

Indeed, a NASA-produced financial analysis of COTS and CRS, quietly released in September 2017, revealed that these two programs have been an outstanding success. The Space Shuttle replacements designed by SpaceX and Orbital ATK — the two companies to which NASA awarded the contracts — cost $89,000 and $135,000 per kilogram of cargo respectively. Even given modern developments in space technology, and accounting for 2017 dollars, using the Space Shuttle would’ve cost $272,000 per kilogram.

This should not surprise anyone, given the private sector’s stellar track record of innovating within the industry. In 2014, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket cost $166 million per launch, and Orbital’s Antares rocket cost $274 million. By comparison, the Space Shuttle would have cost $1.5 billion per launch in 2014. (SpaceX’s recently launched Falcon Heavy rocket — with a much higher payload capacity than its predecessor — costs just $150 million per launch.)

It’s understandable that some remain resistant to NASA’s privatization efforts. For good reason, Americans are proud of what NASA represents, and of what NASA has accomplished. But times change, and we can no longer resist outsourcing exploration of the final frontier to the private sector. Already, SpaceX and its contemporaries have far surpassed NASA’s rocket technology. And while NASA sets its sights on another human trip to the moon, which it hopes will happen by 2020, Elon Musk is looking to Mars. Rather than trying to resuscitate an old government agency, Americans should look there with him.

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