A report newly released by the NASA Office of Inspector General expresses concerns about the government’s plan to privatize the International Space Station. The ISS has been continually inhabited by humans for almost 20 years, providing researchers with a lab in space to conduct important research. The privatization plan is eyeing a 2025 deadline, but NASA warns that an extension to 2028 or later may be necessary to complete its research mission.
A decision over how to proceed with the ISS is a tricky one. NASA funds $3 to $4 billion per year toward maintenance of the aging space station, a financial burden the White House wants to pass onto the private sector in 2025. That plan immediately raised questions over whether any private collective would or could fund the station’s continued operations.
“In particular,” the report states, “it is unlikely that a private entity or entities would assume the Station’s annual operating costs, currently projected at $1.2 billion in 2024.” Though proponents of the plan anticipate a market for such a station developing in the next handful of years, NASA remains skeptical.
Assuming NASA stops its ISS funding by 2025 without a clear private entity to take over the financial burden, the space agency’s existing research mission won’t reach its conclusion. Such a scenario calls for NASA to continue funding through at least 2028, but doing so would prevent those funds from being diverted into other manned space projects.
Assuming NASA does continue its funding through the next decade, it would require additional funds to continue its work on manned Mars missions, among other things, or those other projects would need to be spread out to later dates. The report points out other concerns:
In addition, extending the Station’s life would challenge NASA to manage the risks associated with continued operation of the Station’s aging systems and infrastructure. Furthermore, any extension will require the support of NASA’s international partners, whose continued participation hinges on issues ranging from geopolitics to differing space exploration goals. Lastly, at some future date NASA will need to decommission and deorbit the ISS either in response to an emergency or at the end of its useful life. However, the Agency currently does not have the capability to ensure the ISS will reenter the Earth’s atmosphere and land in a targeted location in the South Pacific Ocean.
Unfortunately, an ideal solution remains elusive.