In one of the most remarkable handovers in the history of space exploration, the Trump administration has proposed handing the American commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) over to private enterprise. In a statement by acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the proposed US$19 billion NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2019 emphasizes a policy shift toward exploration missions that includes a proposal to cease direct participation by the US government in space station operations after its present commitment expires in 2025.
Born as a Cold War project in the 1980s, by the time the first components of the ISS were lofted into space in 1998, it had morphed into an international partnership of 15 nations dedicated to the construction and operation of the $150 billion station. The original commitment by the United States was set to end after 2024, which was regarded as the original limit to the station's service life, but in recent years, there have been proposals to extend the mission until 2028, by which time the orbital laboratory will no longer be safe to operate.
Though there had been hopes that NASA would continue to directly participate in the ISS after 2024, the Trump administration has confirmed that it prefers the space agency to concentrate more on exploration missions, including a return to the Moon and eventual deep space missions to Mars with a proposed exploration budget for 2019 of $5 billion. Under the proposal, NASA would continue development of the Space Launch System rocket, the Orion spacecraft and the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway to support robotic and manned lunar missions.
“This budget focuses NASA on its core exploration mission and reinforces the many ways that we return value to the US through knowledge and discoveries, strengthening our economy and security, deepening partnerships with other nations, providing solutions to tough problems, and inspiring the next generation,” says Lightfoot. “It places NASA and the US once again at the forefront of leading a global effort to advance humanity's future in space, and draws on our nation's great industrial base and capacity for innovation and exploration.”
As part of this shift, the government would provide $150 million to promote commercial spaceflight and the transition of low Earth orbit activities to private companies. This includes inviting commercial vendors to take over US station operations in 2025.
“We've used the International Space Station as the cornerstone for pushing human presence farther into space, with a horizon goal of humans to Mars,” says Lightfoot. “This includes learning about the human physiology of spaceflight and enabling new industry partners to bring to bear their capabilities and emerge as leaders in their own right to help us on this journey. The commercial cargo and crew work continues through the life of the International Space Station in the budget. Further, this budget proposes for NASA to ramp up efforts to transition low-Earth activities to the commercial sector, and end direct federal government support of the ISS in 2025 and begin relying on commercial partners for our low-Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements.”
Because NASA is the single largest partner in the ISS, there have been concerns that its refusal to extend its commitment will affect other nations' resolve to carry on with the station until 2028.