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White House plans to privatise ISS, internal document suggests

According to The Washington Post, internal Nasa documents suggest that federal US funding for the International Space Station could be ended, with the project being handed over to the private sector.

The manned artificial satellite is used as a research laboratory where physics, astronomy and biology experiments can be conducted in a unique low-gravity environment. Its first component was launched in 1998, and it continued to be developed and assembled. It could remain in use until 2028.

The ISS is a collaboration between five space agencies: Nasa (US), Roscosmos (Russia), JAXA (Japan), ESA (Europe) and CSA (China), with the ownership of the orbiting object established by intergovernmental agreements.

The US section of the ISS, the US Orbital Segment, has had its funding secured until 2024. According to internal Nasa documents, the Trump administration does not plan to continue funding the ISS after this period, although the ISS is expected to be used until 2028.

After this period of federal funding ends, control of the ISS could be passed over to private companies.

“The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time,” the document said. “It is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”

“Nasa will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit.”

This could encourage the emergence of an environment “where Nasa is one of the many customers of a non-governmental human space flight managed and operated enterprise”. The White House stated that it would request market analysis and business planning from the private sector in order to put its plan in place.

There are no details to suggest which companies may be involved in the takeover, and what their plans with the station could involve.

Over its lifetime so far, the US has invested $100bn (£72bn) of public money into the development, assembly and operation of the ISS. Last week, Senator Ted Cruz, who ran against President Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, stated that he hoped reports of termination of federal funding for the ISS would “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot,” and referred to the decision makers in the Office of Management and Budget as “numbskulls”.

He added that the decision should be delayed until the lifetime of the ISS had been confirmed.

Last week, in a huge leap forward for the private space industry, Elon Musk’s SpaceX successfully completed the maiden launch of the most powerful rocket in operation, the Falcon Heavy, which carried a Tesla sports car into orbit.

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