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posted by martyb on Friday May 18 2018, @06:04AM   Printer-friendly
from the why-so-costly? dept.

Trump's plan to privatize the ISS by 2025 probably won't work, NASA's inspector general says

The Trump Administration's plan to hand the International Space Station off to the private sector by 2025 probably won't work, says a government auditor. It's unlikely that any commercial companies will be able to take on the enormous costs of operating the ISS within the next six years, the auditor said.

NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, laid out his concerns over the space station's transition during a Senate space subcommittee hearing May 16th, helmed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). During his testimony, Martin said that there's just no "sufficient business case" for space companies to take on the ISS's yearly operations costs, which are expected to reach $1.2 billion in 2024. The industries that would need the ISS, such as space tourism or space research and development, haven't panned out yet, he noted. Plus, the private space industry hasn't been very enthusiastic about using the ISS either — for research or for profit. "Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency's current plans," Martin said at the hearing.

Also at Ars Technica.

Related: NASA Intends to Privatize International Space Station
Congress Ponders the Fate of the ISS after 2024
Buzz Aldrin: Retire the ISS to Reach Mars
Can the International Space Station be Saved? Should It be Saved?
Trump Administration Plans to End Support for the ISS by 2025


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  • (Score: 3, Funny) by TheReaperD on Friday May 18 2018, @07:01AM (7 children)

    by TheReaperD (5556) on Friday May 18 2018, @07:01AM (#681044)

    I'm not sure why this would be a surprise to the politicians or anyone else. It's a space station built for research... period. It's not like you can retrofit it for tourism at anything approaching a reasonable cost and corporations have not invested heavily into scientific research in decades. Their practice has been to buy up smaller research firms that happen to hit a worthwhile discovery rather than invest in research themselves. The smaller firms can't absorb the cost and the bigger ones don't want to take on the expense with no guarantee of return; especially for an endeavor that is pure scientific research with no immediate ROI.

    --
    Ad eundum quo nemo ante iit
    • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Friday May 18 2018, @07:28AM

      by c0lo (156) on Friday May 18 2018, @07:28AM (#681056) Journal

      and corporations have not invested heavily into scientific research in decades. Their practice has been to buy up smaller research firms that happen to hit a worthwhile discovery rather than invest in research themselves.

      Mmmmhhh... yes and no.
      If you mean "pure science research" than yes, you are right, but then again ISS is not a "pure science" endeavor, rather an "applied science"/technological one.
      If we extend the area to "investment in applied science/technological research", your assertion is not true. Some recent examples:
      - Extreme UV lithography wafer etching - required the development of an EUV source powerful enough
      - see the Skunk Work's compact fusion reactor - not yet there, but Lockheed Martin invests in it.

      --
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoFiw2jMy-0
    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by ledow on Friday May 18 2018, @08:27AM (4 children)

      by ledow (5567) on Friday May 18 2018, @08:27AM (#681079) Homepage

      Even if you didn't touch it, space tourism is just not viable.

      $1bn a year is a lot of money. There aren't many companies in the world capable of paying that at all.

      To then expect to recoup that commercially means you have to make a billion dollars a year, probably two, from using it. Not taking into account actually launching people to get to it - because the occasional maintenance / restock flight is how it ticks over and can only carry a very small number of people.

      $1bn a year is... $2.7m a day... you would need 3 millionaires, every day of year, spending a million dollars a trip, for a 24h trip (and/or keeping say 20 people on board and taking one up and one down each day and they each stay 20 days, etc.).

      And that's just to break even. To actually profit, retrofit, organise regular flights, etc. you would need much more than that, or spending several billion a year.

      Though ISS was fabulous from a science point of view, from any kind of tourism point of view you can forget it unless you can attract a regular stream of risk-taking billionaires. What we should be invested in is building stuff outside the Earth's atmosphere... on planets. If you had a Moon base costing $10bn a year, you could probably sell that off as a going concern quite easily. But an antique space station in orbit isn't of much value at all. It's only unique factor is human occupation. But there's not much a human can do confined in a tin can and still-highly-risky space-walks get old quick when they are all you have to do and cost $2.7m a day.

      Space tourism will not be profitable until you have a destination. The ISS isn't a destination. It's a port. Sure, it'd be really cool to go there. Once. But it's just a port, with nothing to actually see or do.

      If you want space tourists, build a Moon base. Then you have a port to launch from (ISS), a destination, an whole new world to discover, viable mineral rights, etc. a living space, you could literally build a hotel.

      Trouble is - there are a LOT more things to work out before we can start doing that. For a start, who would be allowed to do so, because otherwise the Moon will turn into a dumping ground for failed projects and different countries laying claim to parts of it and it'll be destroyed in a single generation.

      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday May 18 2018, @08:41AM (1 child)

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday May 18 2018, @08:41AM (#681083) Journal

        $1.2 billion does not sound like the required operating costs of a typical space station. It seems like what NASA spends on it including science and support staff.

        A space station should be mostly self-sufficient if built right and put in a nice, high orbit. Periodic resupply of goods with a BFR could be well under $100 million. ISS is not good for tourists because it has no B330s [wikipedia.org] and no artificial gravity scheme. And it is an aging facility which could need too much maintenance.

        https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/5494/how-much-of-the-international-space-station-annual-operating-costs-are-due-to-hu [stackexchange.com]

        --
        [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 [soylentnews.org]
      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @08:50PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @08:50PM (#681382)

        ISS was fabulous from a science point of view

        No it wasn't. They could (should) have used sounding rockets for much less money. It was a give away to defense contractors. (Coming from an employee of said ISS contractor)

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 19 2018, @07:05PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 19 2018, @07:05PM (#681641)

          You are right, it was horrible from a science point of view. All the major science societies were against justifying it on a science basis before it was built ("There is micro interest in microgravity"). There never was a strong science case to make for it, and NASA never did itself any favors trying to overhype the science results of it after it was launched. It was always a "feel good" project (there are cases to be made for these kind of international projects, but you have to ask what level of budget justifies it: CERN is a nice example here).

          I will disagree that it was simply a handout to the defense industry. The majority of the dollars went to the Lockheeds and Grummans of the world, but they were the only ones with the infrastructure and expertise to handle a project of that size. For instance, one of the problems the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) had was that the prime contractor selected had experience building high energy physics detectors, but no experience with construction, and they quickly ended up in way over their heads.

          For the ISS, a LOT of other money went all over the place (all over the 50 states, to garner broad congressional support).

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday May 19 2018, @02:28AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 19 2018, @02:28AM (#681501) Journal

      It's a space station built for research... period.

      It's a pork delivery vehicle that has outlived most of its usefulness. Anyone who can afford $1.5 billion a year upkeep can afford to launch their own space station for a lot less than the ISS.

  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Lester on Friday May 18 2018, @08:29AM

    by Lester (6231) on Friday May 18 2018, @08:29AM (#681080) Journal

    The project is a collaboration of:

    NASA (USA)
    FKA (Russia)
    ESA (European Union)
    JAXA (Japan)
    CSA (Canada)
    ASI (Italy, in addition of being part of ESA)
    AEB (Brazil, indirectly contraction with NASA)

    With NASA a little less than 50%, most of it in the first years of construction. Nowadays, in maintenance, projects etc, much less.

    So what are the plans of NASA? Privatize the currents costs of maintenance and let private companies run their own projects? Why should a private company be interested in that? If a private company has any special interest in a project or experiment, they can hire ISS to do it. So, why take care of current NASA'S maintenance part of costs? Maybe public relations, but a I think it is a little too expensive.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:19PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:19PM (#681146)

    I think we should do it. If Trump is still in power in 2025, that is.

    Otherwise, maybe don't.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:52PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:52PM (#681158)

    Can we drop the ISS off on the Moon or some other place where it would provide userful materials for future projects? Steel, wiring, insulation, etc. This stuff isn't cheap to put into orbit.

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