In November 1998, when a rocket was fired with the first module of the International Space Station from Kazakhstan, NASA officials said the station would serve as an orbit for astronauts and cosmonauts for at least 15 years.
It is now over 18 years since the station was constantly occupied by people. The place is impressive, with more living space than a house with six bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large bay window, through which you can look at the earth.
NASA and its international partners have spent decades and more than $ 100 billion to make the station a reality. The problem is that the aging station has become a financial burden as the agency seeks people's return to the moon. And it's not clear what the future holds.
NASA spends between $ 3 and $ 4 billion a year to operate the station and fly people back and forth. That's about half of the agency's budget for human space exploration.
The United States and other participating nations have agreed to fund the station until at least 2024, but it is sure to take longer. Gilles Leclerc Space Administration Director of the Canadian Space Agency states that under no circumstances will the international partners convene in five years and decide to simply plunge the station into the ocean to channel resources to other space targets.
"It would be a waste, we can not drop the International Space Station, it's just too much investment," says Leclerc. "It's pretty clear that we still need a space station in a near-Earth orbit, so the partners agree."
NASA has launched a money-saving idea: leaving the space station to the private sector. That's why a few weeks ago, NASA officials staged a major press event on the Nasdaq MarketSite MarketSite in New York City.
"NASA opens the International Space Station for commercial opportunities and markets these opportunities as never before," said agency finance director Jeff DeWit. "Low Earth orbit commercialization will allow NASA to focus resources so that the first woman and the next man land on the moon by 2024. This is the first phase in which sustainable lunar presence is created prepare for future missions to Mars. "
Astronaut Christina Koch appeared in a video that was beamed down from space. "We are delighted to be a part of NASA as our home and lab are on their way to becoming accessible for expanded business and marketing opportunities, as well as for private astronauts," she said.
All of this created a sense of déjà vu in John Logsdon, a space historian at George Washington University. Back in the 1980s, when the government of Ronald Reagan proposed the construction of a permanent space station, part of the pitch was "the idea that it could be a venue for a multitude of commercial activities worth billions," says Logsdon , "Now we are in 2019 and will finally put this hypothesis to the test."
When reporters asked how much revenue could be generated with new commercial activity on the station, NASA officials did not give any figures to much uncertainty.
"In 12 industry studies commissioned by NASA last year, estimated revenue forecasts for future orbit targets have been generated in a variety of markets, and these forecasts have fluctuated significantly due to the uncertainties associated with these markets of the future," said a spokesperson NASA opposite NPR. "The markets and services that generate revenue must be cultivated by the creative and entrepreneurial private sector."
"That's the right answer because they do not know it yet," says Tommy Sanford, executive director commercial spaceflight federation.
But if the space station were commercially operated or even privately owned, NASA could only become one of many customers.
"You need to focus on adding as many customers as you can and reaching a turning point someday where you will keep all," says Sanford. "Then that will ultimately reduce your costs because you are one of many customers and you will not pay all the infrastructure and transportation costs." Government pays a ton of money.
"The low commercial interest in the station during its nearly 20-year operation makes us think about the Agency's current plans," NASA's Inspector General Paul Martin told congress members last year.
As all these discussions continue, the station is getting older. Space is a harsh environment. The hardware is worn and important components are only certified until 2028.
"The space station actually has a lifespan of less than 10 years," says Dava Newman, a scientist at MIT and former NASA Deputy Administrator.
She loves the station and has experimented with it. But she believes that over time there must be a strategic plan for its end.
"There could be some elements of the space station that the private [sector] could inherit, one or two modules," she says. "All this needs to be done, probably with government funding."
After all, large components of the station must fall back to earth. Asked when NASA is expected to desorb the station, a spokesperson for the agency said it would not target a specific year.
"The transition from the space station will occur as soon as commercial, habitable targets are available and can support NASA's needs as one of many customers," the spokesman said.