WASHINGTON – 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.
“We’re in a position now where there are people out there that can do commercial management of the International Space Station,” Bridenstine said in his first extensive interview since being sworn in as NASA administrator in April. “I’ve talked to many large corporations that are interested in getting involved in that through a consortium, if you will.”
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-Texas, 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 50-49 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 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.
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 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.”
Bridenstine also listed a return to the moon and the restoration of human spaceflight from United States soil as two of his top priorities.