We Need Our Private Space – Wall Street Journal


One of the more controversial aspects of President

Trump’s

new space policy is his plan to privatize the International Space Station. The savings, around $3 billion a year, would be plowed into a lunar exploration program. Under the proposal, the American portion of the

ISS

would be turned over to a commercial entity.

Sen. Bill Nelson

(D., Fla.) is not amused. “The administration’s budget for NASA is a nonstarter,” he said in a statement. “Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.” Even before the transition plan was revealed, other major space players in Congress, including

Sen. Ted Cruz

(R., Texas), expressed skepticism.

This reaction seems to stem from a misreading of the Trump administration’s intentions. The new policy in no way suggests that America will abandon low Earth orbit to go back to the moon. Instead, it suggests that the administration is preparing for the next stage of space exploration. Just as the end of the space shuttle program heralded the beginning of private spaceflight, the end of the old space station will usher in the era of the commercial development of low Earth orbit.

Apart from reforming operation of the ISS, how would commercializing low Earth orbit work? At least three companies—Bigelow Aerospace, Axiom Space, and NanoRacks—have plans to deploy private space stations by the early 2020s.

Bigelow

already has worked with NASA by attaching a small-scale prototype of its inflatable space station module to the ISS.

The aim would be to develop commercial markets for these new private space stations to ensure their independence. They could be serviced by commercial spaceships such as the Boeing Starliner and the SpaceX Dragon at a much lower cost than NASA currently pays to maintain the International Space Station. Private companies such as Bigelow are as enthusiastic about the privatization plan as politicians are angry.

The International Space Station, meanwhile, may remain operational only until 2024. In theory, the orbiting laboratory could keep flying until about 2028, before radiation and micrometeorites wear it down. If the international partners cannot agree to a four-year extension without the U.S., it will have to retire sooner.

The Trump administration should be applauded for starting the transition from a government-owned space station to the era of commercial space facilities. The process would be necessary even if money were not needed to take Americans back to the moon.

America should not abandon low Earth orbit. But that goal cannot be fulfilled by clinging to the International Space Station indefinitely. It can only be accomplished by commercial space stations, freeing NASA to lead the great push to the moon, to Mars—and beyond.

Mr. Whittington

is a writer in Houston.

Appeared in the March 2, 2018, print edition.



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