The European Union (upper left), China (upper right), Japan (lower right), the United States (bottom center) and Russia (lower left) share ownership of the International Space Station. Graphic by Raven Fawcett

NASA, private companies should work together in space

While NASA is economically beneficial, allowing private companies to become stakeholders in space would increase efficiency.

President Donald Trump recently put out a plan to remove funding of the International Space Station by 2025. To fund the International Space Station through non-federal means, the US government has begun to think about the probability of the privatization of outer space. This would mean that International Space Station, or the ISS, would lose direct federal funding in 2025 and would instead be open to private investment in the system.

An internal NASA document acquired by the “Washington Post” stated, “The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time — it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”

Not everyone is onboard with this new plan for the ISS. Some scientists at NASA fear this loss of federal control will hinder scientific research
Future private space exploration is not a completely ludicrous concept. Companies such as SpaceX are being to enter the space market as opposed to merely the government. The best solution for the future is that public and private entities, such as NASA and SpaceX, should work together through the exchange of information to help further the United States and the world’s knowledge of outer space.

One of the major problems concerning privatization is that the United States does not have full ownership of the space station. In 1998, the United States, Russia, Japan, the EU and China worked together to launch the station into outer space in several pieces. There are two main components to the ISS. The first is the Russian Orbital Segment, ROS, which contains important elements such as the DMS-R, an EU-created set of of computers which controls the “guidance, navigation and control for the entire Space Station,” according to the NASA website. The other part is the U.S. Orbital Segment, USOS, which is where various laboratories and living quarters for current astronauts are located. This part is currently run by the United States, Japan, the EU and Canada. In addition to this, members of foreign nations, such as South Korea and South Africa, have visited the ISS for various different reasons.

Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the United States could potentially sell off or give private companies access to the space station, as they would be competing with various foreign space agencies. Private entities would have difficulties proposing a deal with not only the United States but the rest of the four important members.

NASA and the work it does are not only important for pure scientific research but also for the economy. The money spent in NASA has had a positive effect on the United States since its inception. A 1972 study, done at Pace College in New York, found that “each dollar spent on R&D by NASA returns an average of slightly over seven dollars in GNP over an eighteen-year period following the expenditure.” While this study may not be recent, it gives a good general impression of the monetary value of NASA.

The money spent on NASA has also been important on many technological breakthroughs that affect the daily lives of average Americans. A 2016 Forbes article stated, “Modern satellite communications, weather forecasting and GPS simply would not exist without space exploration. Modern robotics, computers, digital photography and digital video, fuel cells and many other key technologies received huge boosts from space-related R&D.” The work done by NASA has monumental effects on America not only based on scientific research.

However, some may argue that private industry can do the same job and do it cheaper than the government can. One of the major reasons behind this philosophy is the work currently being done by Elon Musk and his company, SpaceX. A budget proposed by the United States Air Force in 2017 stipulated that a rocket launch in 2020 would cost $422 million to complete using a company known as United Launch Alliance. United Launch Alliance is a company created in 2006 by defense and aviation companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing.

In opposition to this monetary assessment, SpaceX was able to complete a similar military launch for the Air Force for $96.5 million. This would be a difference of almost 300 million dollars. CEO Elon Musk stated on Twitter, “$300 million diff. between SpaceX and Boeing/Lockheed exceeds avg. value of satellite, so flying with SpaceX is basically free.” Through this large difference in price, it could be argued that we should let space travel to be done by private businesses as it would save money for the government and the taxpayers. While the Air Force paid for this bill, one could argue that private businesses should run the International Space Station themselves because they could it do more cheaply than the federal government. An example of this fiscal benefit can be seen through the difference between the old Space Shuttle program, discontinued in 2011, and new commercial resupply launches. Every year the Space Shuttle program was active, it cost the U.S. government 4 billion dollars. Through new commercial resupply ships, it only costs 50 million dollars, a trip, to reach the International Space Station.

The best solution is to find a middle ground between the two entities. The United States government should not remove direct financial attachment to the United States’ part of the Space Station because it poses problems in two areas. The first is that the United States Orbital Segment is beneficial for scientific research for not only the United States but also the rest of the globe. It provides scientific discoveries that are not only academic but economic. The second is that it is a good tool of global diplomacy. In the ISS, various countries of the world work together to produce scientific research and are a good symbol of global diplomacy.

On the concept of private companies in outer space, the United States should work together with private entities to enhance scientific discoveries. Companies should compete with each other in the space field. This would not only promote new technological discoveries but also lower the cost of space travel. The government and private companies working together could potentially achieve things that they could not do alone.

Post Author: Nate Gibbons