With the 2016 election now over, Republican Donald Trump has been elected to be the 45th president of the United States. Now the long process of creating a transition team and appointing some 4,000 people to various government positions begins. But what does that mean for NASA, specifically, the International Space Station?
President-elect Trump said little about space exploration throughout his run for president, focusing mostly on his primary talking points of jobs, immigration and defeating the Islamic State terrorist group. However, in the waning days of the 2016 campaign, Robert Walker, a former congressman, became his space policy advisor.
According to Space News, on Oct. 26, Walker spoke to the Federal Aviation Administration's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. He said the Trump campaign developed a policy that offered "real change" in space.
"I would describe what we came up with in four terms: it's visionary, it's disruptive, its coordinating and it's resilient," Walker said.
Per Space News, Walker described it further by listing nine key aspects of the proposed policy:
- A commitment to global space leadership.
- Reinstituting the National Space council, which was last in operation during the George H. W. Bush presidency.
- A goal of human exploration of the whole solar system by the end of the century.
- Shift NASA's budget toward "deep space achievements" instead of Earth science, which would be shifted to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
- Develop small satellite technologies for the military and develop satellite servicing technologies.
- Become a word leadership in hypersonic technology.
- Shift access and low Earth orbit operations to the commercial sector.
- Start the discussion about more public-private space partnerships similar to the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program in operation as well as financing of the ISS in order to extend its lifetime.
- Require all federal agencies to develop a plan to use "space assets and space developments" to carry out their respective missions.
Regarding the space station, point number eight is particularly interesting. Currently, NASA and all of its international partners have agreed to continue operating the ISS through 2024. Both Boeing, which designed most of the U.S. segment of the outpost, as well as Russia believe the station can be safely operated through at least 2028 – the 30th anniversary of the first piece launched into orbit.
However, there has been some recent talk about handing over operations of the ISS to a private organization by 2024. If successful, it would be the first private operation of a space station since the MirCorp mission in 2000.
MirCorp signed an agreement in 2000 with the Russian Federation to lease the 15-year-old Mir space station. However, due to financial issues in late-2000, the company ultimately had to let Russia deorbit the station.
Mir was de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean in March 2001. MirCorp shut its doors in 2003.
The reasons for MirCorp's failure vary from political pressure to financial pressure. However, today the landscape is much different. With commercial companies delivering cargo to the 16-year-old International Space Station and commercial crew flights just on the horizon, seeing a commercial operator of the football field-sized space station is not an unrealistic proposition.
How such an arrangement would take place, considering the international nature of the outpost, not to mention the extreme cost of maintaining such a complex (NASA alone spends some 3 billion a year), is unclear.
Also unclear is if there is an organization that would want to take on such a feat or if there will even be a need to keep the $100 billion space station beyond 2024.
There are currently plans to have commercial space stations in orbit by the end of the decade. Bigelow Aerospace, which develops and builds expandable space habitats, is expected to send a 330-cubic-meter stand-alone space station module by 2020. The company has suggested it could also be docked to the ISS.
Additionally, Russia wants to start building its own new space station by the middle of the 2020s and may take a module or two from the ISS in order to start it.
China, which once expressed interest in joining the ISS but was denied access by the U.S. congress, also plans on having its own multi-module space station completed by the middle of the next decade.
It is possible, however, that a new organization could form in order to take control of the ISS. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, otherwise known as CASIS, did just this regarding the management of the experiments sent to the U.S portion of the space station.
Whether CASIS expands to operate the entire ISS, or a new organization is formed, much work needs to be done to figure out if such a large and complex object in space can even be managed by a private organization or if some government subsidies will be required.
Whatever happens will likely need to be approved by congress, which is Republican controlled. The 115th United States Congress will be sworn in Jan. 3, 2017. Trump will be sworn in Jan. 20.