The US’s plan to give control of the International Space Station to the private sector will not be beneficial for R&D.
In the 1960s, the US Department of Defense awarded contracts to private operators for the development of the ARPANET project, which ultimately resulted in the evolution of the internet. But can the same be replicated for space technology, with the US planning to, as per Bloomberg, let private players take over the International Space Station (ISS)? Although it is true that many private companies have ventured into space travel/exploration/observation—Boeing was involved in the development of ISS; P&G and Goodyear have conducted research in space—will the government’s making space, in space research and observation, for the private sector be beneficial for R&D? The US government appears committed to doing so. President Donald Trump’s plan to withdraw funding from the ISS, thus, is a crossroads of sorts. Even as the US private sector plans to put man on Mars, and the US government wants to pool funds for manned missions to the Moon and Mars, the government’s decision to give the ISS to the private sector could still mean pain for space R&D. For one, if a private entity were to commercialise ISS operations, which is also the hub of research for many companies, the cost of innovation may rise exponentially. More importantly, a single, large company having control over the space station may prove to be a setback for new start-ups like Angiex.
Even if the US does find some takers, many argue that space exploration/travel may not be a viable project. Only a few private players would have the resources to take this on, and amongst such companies, the enthusiasm is likely to be low because of divergent interests—Tesla, for instance, is looking at developing budget rockets that can carry heavy payloads, and a legacy space station might not seem attractive to it. Nevertheless, if the ISS does end up getting sold to the highest bidder, costs of innovation will go up, and the last frontier will become a platform facilitating a monopoly of larger companies.