NASA is talking to several international companies about forming a consortium that would take over operation of the International Space Station and run it as a commercial space lab, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in an interview.
The White House touched off a heated discussion about the future of the orbiting laboratory earlier this year when it said it planned to end direct government funding of the station by 2025, while working on a transition plan to turn the station over to the private sector.
Some members of Congress said they would vigorously oppose any plan that ends the station’s life prematurely. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said the decision to end funding for it was the result of “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget.
And it was unclear, who, if anyone, would want to take over operations of the station, which costs NASA about $3 billion to $4 billion a year and is run by an international partnership that includes the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. An orbiting laboratory that flies some 250 miles above the Earth's surface, it has been continuously inhabited by astronauts since 2000.
In unveiling its plan to commercialize the station earlier this year, the White House offered few details of how exactly it would work. As it prepares a transition plan, the White House said it “will request market analysis and business plans from the commercial sector and solicit plans from commercial industry.”
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, said Frank Slazer, the vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association.
“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,” he said. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”
Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.” But he said there was still seven years to plan for the future of the station, and with the White House’s budget request “we have forced the conversation.”
A former congressman from Oklahoma, Bridenstine, was confirmed by the Senate by a narrow 50-to-49 vote this spring, after the post had remained vacant for 15 months. Democrats had rallied against his nomination, saying he lacked the managerial and scientific background for the job.
Many had labeled him a climate-change denier over controversial comments Bridenstine, a conservative Republican, had made in the past.
But during a Senate hearing last month, he said his views had evolved, and that he believes human activity is the leading cause of climate change. That earned him plaudits from Democrats, such as Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) who had opposed his nomination.
“I have come to the conclusion that this is a true evolution,” Schatz said. “That you respect people with whom you work, you respect the science, you want their respect.”
In the interview, Bridenstine said there was no single event that cause him to change his thinking. As chairman of the Environment subcommittee, he said he “listened to a lot of testimony. I heard a lot of experts, and I read a lot. I came to the conclusion myself that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that we've put a lot of it into the atmosphere and therefore we have contributed to the global warming that we've seen. And we've done it in really significant ways.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Bridenstine also listed a return to the moon and the restoration of human spaceflight from United States soil as two of his top priorities. NASA has proposed building an outpost in the vicinity of the moon that could be inhabited by humans from time to time, with landers that could ferry supplies to the lunar surface.
Known as the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, the system would be built by NASA in partnership with industry and its international partners, he said.
“I've met with a lot of leaders of space agencies from around the world,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gateway in the lunar outpost because a lot of countries want to have access to the surface of the moon. And this can help them as well and they can help us. It helps expand the partnership that we've seen in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.”
But the first element of the system wouldn’t be launched until 2021 or 2022, he said.
Perhaps as early as this year, Boeing and SpaceX, the companies hired by NASA to fly its astronauts to the space station, could see their first test flights with people on board, though it’s possible they could be delayed to next year.
Since the space shuttle was retired in 2011, Russia has flown NASA’s astronauts to the station, charging hundreds of millions of dollars over that time. Bridenstine said that it is “a big objective is to once again launch American astronauts on American rockets from American soil.”
Both Boeing and SpaceX have had delays and setbacks in their programs. Government watchdogs have said they were concerned about an issue with Boeing's abort system that may cause its spacecraft to “tumble,” posing a threat to the crew’s safety. Boeing has said it has fixed that problem, as well as a concern with the heat shield that the Government Accountability Office said last year could disconnect “and damage the parachute system.”
John Mulholland, Boeing's commercial crew program manager, told Congress earlier this year that the company's "analyses show that we exceed our requirements for crew safety."
As administrator, Bridenstine and his staff will also have to sign off on SpaceX’s decision to fuel its Falcon 9 rocket after the crews are on board -- which some have said could put astronauts at risk. But during a recent NASA safety advisory panel, some members said they thought the procedure could be a “viable option” if adequate safety controls are in place.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told reporters last month that he did not think the fueling process "presents a safety issue for astronauts. But we can adjust our operational procedures to load propellant before the astronauts board. But I really think this is an overblown issue.”
In the interview, Bridenstine said no decision had been made yet about the fueling procedures. “I haven’t signed off on anything at this point,” he said. “We’re going to make sure we test it every which way you can possibly imagine. And that’s underway right now. We’re not going to put anybody in any undue risk.”