NASA’s ISS Director explains the role commercial industry could play in operating ISS. Spoiler: Station is not for sale.

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Since NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the Washington Post that a commercial consortium could take over International Space Station operations, a flurry of articles have appeared about the proposed “sale” of the orbiting outpost. SpaceNews checked in with Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA headquarters, and found out what the agency has in mind isn’t as dramatic a departure as that.

There’s a Washington Post article about NASA talking with a commercial consortium about taking over ISS operations. What does that mean?

Our intention is to be able to turn over day-to-day operations of the ISS to private industry by the middle of the next decade. Within that, there could be partnerships between companies that actually operate the ISS based on a particular business plan that they all have.

As far as NASA’s direct plan, our plan is to turn over the day-to-day operations to private industry to be able to operate modules in space, to be able to do all the planning, training, real-time operations, sustainment, engineering. NASA could be just one of many customers for low Earth orbit.

What does it cost to maintain the space station annually?

Its budget is separated into operations, use or research and transportation. The transportation is the largest part of the ISS budget. It is just over half of the budget. The budget this year was about $1.7 billion just for transportation, cargo and crew. The other part of it is operations and utilization.

I have a hard time imaging any industry consortium paying the cost of ISS operations and maintenance. Would an industry consortium have to do that?

NASA plans to pay for what we want in low Earth orbit. We are going to pay for our research, pay for our astronaut training, pay for having astronauts in orbit. We’ll pay for all the things that are important to NASA, including international partnerships. We are encouraging private industry to go find other long-term customers for the ISS or for other platforms.

I understand private operations would cost less but there are astronauts onboard. It seems risky to turn over ISS operations. 

This transition is going to take place over many years. We are not going to throw one big switch and all the sudden NASA civil servants aren’t working and it’s all private industry. 2025 is several years from now. We have plenty of time and our industrial base has got much more experience than it used to have. Before, we had only a small number of companies that knew anything about spaceflight. Now, it’s a lot larger number with a lot of new entrants.

Our intention is to build up the knowledge base and the industrial base so private industry could take over large parts of what NASA does. That doesn’t mean NASA just walks away. In the International Space Station Transition Report, we talk about only transitioning those things that make sense. We are only going to transition the things industry, NASA and our stakeholders are comfortable transitioning. Some things we are probably not going to transition like crew health and safety. We probably are not going to transition our life support system work or [extravehicular activities].  We’ll keep that in the government. Of course, we have yet to work through what all those things are.