The Bigger​ Picture: Why the International Space Station should remain in the hands of NASA

By Tahlia W.

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When I was a little girl, my mom and I would track the International Space Station and search for the bright light that shone as it passed us in the night sky. It was during these instances that I first had an inkling of the potential that human beings had in space exploration
if given the opportunity and resources. As a former Houstonian proud of the feats accomplished at Johnson Space Center and a lifelong admirer of all things space-related, I have avidly followed the contributions achieved through NASA’s research. The International Space Station is an example of NASA’s trailblazing work in space research. Recently, however, steps have been taken by the White House that would cause NASA to sever ties with the ISS. As it is, we have seven years to discuss this issue, making it a relevant issue today and for several years to come. While the fate of NASA’s further involvement with the ISS is still an ongoing debate, it is important that we, the American people, have a say in our space program. We should all make an effort to preserve NASA’s involvement with the ISS for our nation’s scientific advancement and to continue to lead in the space research and exploration that benefits us all.

In February of this year, the Trump administration proposed cutting federal funding for the International Space Station by 2025. The reasoning behind this idea is explained in a NASA memo found in an article at Fortune.com: “’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.’” Therefore, the White House would like to transfer operations of the ISS to private companies in order to cut spending. According to a Washington Post article, “In unveiling its plan to commercialize the station earlier this year, the White House offered few details of how exactly it would work.” However, the ISS costs NASA $3 billion to $4 billion annually to maintain, a cost that the Trump administration is no longer willing to pay. In the same Washington Post article concerning the proposal, Frank Slazer, an executive for the Aerospace Industries Association, is quoted as stating, “The international nature of the station could make it tricky, though perhaps there could be an international commercial partnership with some sort of a government role… It will be very hard to turn ISS into a truly commercial outpost because of the international agreements that the United States is involved in.” Furthermore, some Congress members have vehemently opposed the idea of privatization. The article also notes, “Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said the decision to end funding for it [the ISS] was the result of “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget.

In recent developments, according to an article on CNBC.com, new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has this month, “spoken ‘to many large corporations that are interested in getting involved… through a consortium, if you will.’” Regarding NASA’s continual discussion of privatizing the ISS, Jeff Manber, CEO of space platform builder NanoRacks, stated, “It’s healthy we’re having this discussion today so we understand what the relationship is going to be between the government and the private sector.” However, the article notes that “When CNBC spoke to Bigelow Aerospace, NanoRacks and Axiom Space in February, none expressed interest in taking over the ISS.” It adds, “Each saw the ISS as a stepping stone to establishing commercial operations in low Earth orbit rather than the foundation on which to build.”

As one would imagine, there are varying opinions on the matter of privatizing the ISS. Konstantin Kakaes’s opinion piece on Vox.com argues against privatization. He first calls the plan “a terrible idea” and backs his opinion with a study conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center. He writes that the center has “studied the issue and concluded that it ‘is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025.’ The only way a commercial entity could run a space station, they found, would be with a substantial government subsidy.” However, he adds that adding a subsidy would not qualify as “’privatization’—except insofar as it would allow business cronies of political leaders to line their pockets at taxpayer expense.”

On the other hand, Ross Marchand at the Foundation for Economic Education writes that the ISS “would be better off in private hands.” He defends the President’s FY 2019 budget, which he says, “gives taxpayers a pleasant break from space oddities.” Marchand goes on to state that the government could save $3 billion in annual funding for NASA. Though Marchand admits that privatization would not be easy, he states that the US has “a lot of leverage… since it has contributed to the bulk of maintenance funding.” He also adds an opinion on patent protection, writing that researchers on Earth “have a more viable path forward due to intellectual property protections in… the US and UK. The Space Station, and outer space in general, does not have patent protection.” He concludes by saying that privatization “will allow the burgeoning space industry to foot the bill for its own risky endeavors.”

First, in regard to Marchand’s article for the FEE, his argument is completely fixed on the fiscal side of the ISS and not on the bigger picture. For instance, an article from The Hill notes NASA’s Inspector General remarked at a recent Congressional subcommittee hearing that “Any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up $3-4 billion beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking.” Even if the $3-4 billion were available in 2025, we must also take into account the possibility suggested by Kakaes that the only way the ISS could be commercially run would be with the help of a government subsidy. To this end, Art Harman points out in his article for The Hill other ways to economize suggesting, “NASA should work to add as new ISS partners India, South Korea and United Arab Emirates, which would help reduce U.S. shared costs.” This suggestion seems like a much better option than privatization, especially for those at NASA who could potentially lose their jobs if privatization of the ISS is realized. Harman writes of the job losses that would result in privatization saying, “We must not repeat the mistake that was made by canceling the space shuttles before commercial launch services were ready — where we lost a massive talent and knowledge base.” In the same vein, Senator Cruz of Texas remarked that, “prematurely canceling NASA programs for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars.” Part of the “billions of dollars” he is referring to is the money NASA has invested in the ISS since its inception. Handing the ISS over to private management could not only contribute to government waste but could also result in NASA losing talented, intelligent individuals from their organization.

Second, it is crucial to point out the potential research and simulations that NASA could continue to conduct on the ISS. For example, two astronauts, one American and the other Russian, spent a year from 2015-2016 on board the ISS which “yielded vital physiological data for future space missions.” The “bigger picture” I referred to earlier includes these benefits that could be gained from the government-supported research conducted on the ISS. Research and space projects are always lengthy and expensive, but the rewards reaped can be priceless to the advancement of mankind.

Also a piece of the bigger picture, the Space Station is a symbol of unity in space. Even when ISS partner nations are at odds with one another on Earth, the ISS is a beacon of partnership and respect that crosses national allegiances to further humanity. On this note, Art Harman also writes, “ISS is a tremendous example of how we work together with the international community. The station also serves as an element of public and cultural diplomacy, showing the best of America and our international partners to the world, as well as inspiring the next generation to help build our future in high technology and space exploration.”  Writing for The Hill, Bob Barr reminds us that “our country eagerly and broadly embraced President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon… squeezing dollars for manned space exploration has become among the most difficult funding challenges in all of Washington.” He adds, “It is in this environment that NASA’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget includes a plan to end all federal funding for the ISS by 2025.” On another note, Barr expresses his concern for the ISS if the US “bows out,” “our two most serious national security adversaries, Russia and China, are poised to step up to the plate to continue the ISS and beyond.”Therefore, the ISS is not just a unique space for research and simulation, it is also a symbol of mutual respect and partnership between nations, a partnership that privatization could infringe upon.

To say that privatizing the International Space Station is a bad idea is an understatement. The argument to continue funding the ISS may seem romantic to some, but we have seen that it is backed by facts and common sense. Those who argue for privatization seem to be missing the point. Like most scientific research, NASA and the US government’s involvement in space research and exploration were never meant to happen on a tight budget and was never expected to happen overnight. During the “space race,” President Kennedy and the American people realized the time and money involved in reaching the moon, but he famously stated that , “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.” In our time, we, too, must ensure that we continue to fund the ISS not because it is easy or economical, but because it serves to organize, measure, and prepare the best of our energies and skills for future space exploration.

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One Comment to “The Bigger​ Picture: Why the International Space Station should remain in the hands of NASA”

  1. In a wired way, as a taxpayer, I feel a little, I don’t know, offended? disappointed? what the White House would what to privatize the ISS. I feel that for Americans, NASA is the crown, if not often over looked, jewel of the Untied States agencies. It feels like the privatization of the ISS would be like privatizing the navy or something, it feels like letting go of so much hared work. At least this isn’t set in stone yet, so hopefully something can change the course of this privatization!

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