Dabbling in real estate and looking for a way to invest hundreds of millions of dollars with virtually no chance of return? Then the International Space Station (ISS) is for you.
Discontinuing funding for space station operations after 2024 and turning the job over to the private sector after that is something the Trump Administration is currently contemplating, the Washington Post reports. The good news is this will surely never happen. The bad news is that the White House is even considering a plan that fails on so many levels.
Here are the three big ones.
Privatizing the Space Station is a fiscal loser
The International Space Station was first proposed in 1984 by then-President Ronald Reagan. Back then it was called the Freedom Space Station, and back then it was supposed to cost just $ 8 billion ($ 19 billion in 2017 dollars). Things haven’t worked out quite that way, with $ 100 billion the generally accepted figure for what the U.S. has spent on the station so far — and many analysts putting the figure closer to $ 150 billion, once you take support costs into consideration. Just maintaining the completed station costs up to $ 4 billion per year — big money for a space agency whose overall annual budget is less than $ 20 billion. So it’s an investment that the government might well want to unload. But as with all distressed properties, the question is, who would want it?
The station was never intended to be a money-making operation, and after more than 17 years of continuous operation, it has succeeded in not earning so much as a dime. For starters, flights to the station do not come cheap. In 2018, Russia will be charging the U.S. $ 81 million per seat to launch astronauts aboard the Soyuz spacecraft. American companies don’t offer much more of a bargain: The Falcon 9, for example — SpaceX’s workhorse rocket — costs $ 62 million per launch. For private sector lessees who want to operate the station as a working lab, that’s an awful lot to spend just to get your employees to work.
The cost doesn’t go down to fly tourists to the station. Unless the space station lessees also own their own rockets, profits from a ticket will go to the companies that do the launching. What’s more, the station typically holds six people, and while it may eventually be reconfigured to accommodate as many as nine, most of those crew members have to be pilots and engineers. That leaves only a few spots for paying tourists. A hotel with seven or eight employees for every guest is not going to turn much profit.
Privatizing the Space Station is a scientific loser
There are two main reasons the research aboard the ISS doesn’t get done on Earth: The microgravity aboard the station provides an environment not available on the planet, and the studies conducted there are largely pure science — done strictly to advance the state of knowledge. Maybe there will eventually be commercial applications, but with no stockholders demanding a return on investment, there’s no pressure to limit the research to only the projects that are closest to being monetized. That’s the kind of work that gets done by foundations, universities and government programs, not by private investors.
As the year astronaut Scott Kelly and cosmonaut Misha Kornienko spent in space showed, a great deal of station research is devoted to studying how the human body fares during long-term exposure to the space environment. Those studies are critical to any plans for deep space exploration, but any theoretical payoff from them is decades in the future.
Privatizing the Space Station is even a political loser
Want to win elections? Then don’t mess with Florida — that swingiest of swing states. And with bright red Texas at least flirting with purple, don’t mess with the folks over there, either. That’s a lesson President Barack Obama learned in 2010 when he tried to cancel plans for the Ares V booster and the Orion spacecraft — the 21st century versions of the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo orbiter. Blowback from Congress and industry was fierce and Obama responded by restoring both programs, though the name of the Ares V was changed to the prosaic Space Launch System (SLS).
Already, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz has blasted the privatization idea. “As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can to is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” Cruz said recently.
It’s not just Texas and Florida that would be ticked off at station privatization. Like any good, unkillable government project, the ISS has its roots sunk in congressional districts all over the country, where manufacturers and suppliers have long relied on regular contracts to continue servicing the station. You can barely turn a bolt in the station without somebody’s cash register ringing on Earth. Running that revenue through private lessees would only dilute the cash flow.
American stakeholders aren’t the only ones who could stand to be hurt. Fourteen other nations are partners in the station (that’s how you get the I in ISS), and most of them were sweet-talked into the project by the United States. They would not look kindly on the senior partner in the operation taking a golden parachute now.
The laws of physics and engineering will determine how much longer the station lives, but few people expect it to be around in the 2030s. History then will judge whether or not the entire project was a wise investment of public funds and energy.
Either way, current chatter notwithstanding, those resources should — and all but certainly will — remain public.