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Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station

Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson give NASA a reality check on privatizing International Space Station
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Recently the Senate Subcommittee on Science, Space and Competitiveness held a hearing on the future of the International Space Station. Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzO'Rourke gives 'a definitive no' to possibility of running in 2020 Vicente Fox endorses Beto O'Rourke in Texas Senate race Beto O'Rourke on impeachment: 'There is enough there to proceed' MORE (R-Texas) the chair of the subcommittee, and Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonElection Countdown: Florida Senate fight resumes after hurricane | Cruz softens ObamaCare attacks | GOP worries Trump will lose suburban women | Latest Senate polls | Rep. Dave Brat gets Trump's 'total endorsement' | Dem candidates raise record B Florida extending early voting in counties hit by hurricane Poll:Majority of voters say health care 'very important' to them in midterms MORE (D-Fla.), the ranking member of the full Senate Commerce Committee, were in attendance. Bill Gerstenmaier, the NASA associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Paul Martin, the NASA Inspector General, were the witnesses.

The actual title of the hearing should have been “Why the Trump administration’s plan to privatize the ISS by 2025 is not happening.” Both Cruz and Nelson were absolute on this in a rare display of bi-partisan agreement.

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It is not that Cruz and Nelson are against commercializing low Earth orbit operations in principle. They are highly skeptical of whether the ISS could be taken private or whether it could be replaced by one or more commercial space stations by 2025. The bottom line is that both mean for the ISS to remain operating as it traditionally has been, as a facility paid for by NASA and its international partners, through 2028 if not longer.

 

One might be cynical by pointing out that Cruz and Nelson represent Texas and Florida, two states that benefit from the roughly $3 billion to $4 billion that NASA spends maintaining the ISS annually. However, they have a point, which was buttressed by Martin’s testimony.

“NASA’s current plan to privatize the ISS remains a controversial and highly debatable proposition, particularly with regard to the feasibility of fostering increased commercial activity in low Earth orbit," he said.

"Specifically, it is questionable whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business independent of significant government funding. In particular, 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," Martin added. "Such a business case requires robust demand for commercial market activities such as space tourism, satellite servicing, manufacturing of goods, and research and development, all of which have yet to materialize.”

Gerstenmaier had no good answer to that point nor to the fears expressed by both Cruz and Nelson that ending NASA support to the ISS would create another “space gap” such as the one that was caused when the space shuttle program was ended in 2011, long before the commercial crew spacecraft were ready to fly.

NASA has ever since been dependent on the Russians to fly astronauts to and from the ISS. However, even though Russia is charging what many consider to be outrageous prices for seats on the Soyuz spacecraft, the arrangement is still cheaper than keeping the shuttle flying would have been.

Cruz was also unhappy with the cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program by President Obama. The end of the Bush-era program created another ten-year space gap that is only now being closed with President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE’s return to the moon initiative.

Clearly, NASA and the Trump administration have their work cut out for them if they mean to come up with a privatization plan that will pass muster with Congress. Gerstenmaier promised that there would be no gap. His agency will have to prove it by coming up with a realistic cost estimate for operating a private ISS, or several commercial space stations, or a combination of both.

NASA will have to find a private operator and develop projects that the ISS could conduct that would generate income. During the hearing, pharmaceutical development was mentioned as a business that holds promise. Many more profit-making businesses will have to be identified.

However Congress, particularly Cruz and Nelson, has also assumed an obligation. The Trump administration wants to take the ISS private and use the savings to fund the program to return to the moon.

If the ISS is going to persist as a government-run space station for another four or more years, is Congress prepared to make up the difference with appropriated funds? Or will the process of returning to the moon slow to a crawl? These questions will need answering sooner rather than later.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”