Sell the space station, explore Mars: Column

NASA could really use the money it might make from selling or leasing to a commercial customer.

What should NASA do with the International Space Station? Officially, it is slated to end its operational life in 2024, about the time that NASA’s Journey to Mars program is scheduled to shift into high gear with “proving ground” missions in cislunar space near the Earth’s moon.

The assumption had been that the space station, conceived over 30 years ago during the Reagan administration, would be abandoned and taken out of orbit so that it would burn up harmlessly over the ocean. But NASA official Bill Hill recently suggested that the space agency and its international partners would hand off the ISS to a private company.

Commercializing the space station makes sense. It’s bipartisan, for a start. President George W. Bush set into motion the commercialization of human space travel, President Obama has embraced the idea, and the transition is under way. The last NASA-operated crewed flight of the space shuttle occurred in 2011. The first commercially-crewed spacecraft, operated by Boeing and SpaceX, are due to start flying in 2018.

On the other hand, some problems may crop up from the move to “hand off” the International Space Station. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees the space agency, wants to extend the operational life of the ISS to 2028 in a new NASA authorization bill. He would have to be convinced that commercializing the ISS is a good deal for American taxpayers. If the bill is pushed back to next year, which would not be surprising, there could be a new chairman to convince.

One obstacle to commercialization may be price. The space station cost about $100 billion to build. Even considering depreciation and a short expected remaining operational life (perhaps four more years to 2028, perhaps longer), the ISS is a valuable piece of real estate. Congress may balk at the idea of giving it away. At the same time, where do you find a buyer for a used space station? Few customers likely could afford it.

Also, there’s the question of whether a slightly used space station would prove to be unfair competition for proposed private space facilities. Bigelow Aerospace and a new startup called Axiom Space are planning commercial space stations. Does enough business exist to support a commercial ISS and one or more purely private space stations?

The answer to that question depends on how low launch costs go by the mid-2020s. SpaceX, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance are all working to create reusable launch vehicles and spacecraft. As the cost of space travel decreases, the number of possible customers for commercial space stations increases.

The destruction of a SpaceX Falcon 9 along with its payload, an Israeli communications satellite, during a static test fire this month underscores the fact that space travel is not yet as routine and free of accidents as air travel. But as commercial companies gain more experience and refine their technology, their safety record and ability to reuse spacecraft should improve.

One way to win broad support for commercializing the International Space Station may be to lease it rather than sell it or give it away. The idea is that the international partners would receive rental payments from a commercial operator which, in turn, would sell time on the ISS for profit. NASA and its partners could plow the rents from the ISS into other programs, say the Journey to Mars that seeks to put astronaut boots on the ground of the Red Planet by the 2030s.

Can the ISS be turned into a profit-making enterprise? The answer depends on a lot of currently unknowable unknowns. But absent a hefty budget increase that would allow NASA to both run a space station and send astronauts to Mars, it is going to have to get creative if it expects to prosper in the 2020s and beyond.

The space agency will have to unload the ISS one way or another. If it can turn it into commercial space and make a little money in the process, so much the better.

Mark R. Whittington, a Houston-based writer and former computer analyst, writes frequently on space and politics and just published Why Is it So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?a political study of space exploration.He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.

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