The Trump administration wants to turn the International Space Station over to private enterprise after 2024, according to an internal NASA document obtained by the Washington Post.
The document says the decision to end direct federal support after 2024 does not mean deorbiting the lab, which is currently contracted to Boeing and costs NASA between $3 billion and $4 billion a year.
“It is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform,” it states.
“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.”
The report came ahead of the White House's 2019 budget proposal expected today, in which the Trump administration is set to request $150 million aimed at ensuring that "commercial successors to the ISS" are operational.
NASA told Euronews it would not comment on any "leaked or pre-decisional documents" prior to the release of the budget.
"NASA and the International Space Station partnership are committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space," it said.
Agreement needed with Europe, first
Euronews space correspondent Jeremy Wilks noted that any decisions taken on the future of the ISS needed to be agreed with partners from Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.
However, with the future of the ISS in question over the next decade, he said the field is “open to interesting and innovative approaches for how to continue to make best use of this very expensive and quite extraordinary orbiting laboratory.”
“Proposals need other partners to adhere to the vision, otherwise it's not likely to be workable, but it would be wrong to assume that just because governments have funded the ISS until now that they are against allowing more private company involvement in the project,” he explained.
Wilks said the plan also fits in with general trends in the space sector.
“[It] used to be all about state-funding, but it's changing fast, particularly when it comes to low-Earth orbit.”
He added that the ISS could be an ideal location for companies to work on services such as high-tech research in pharmaceuticals and materials science with backing from governments.