NASA administrator in talks about commercializing ISS


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In a wide-ranging news article today, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine revealed that the agency is in discussions with many private corporations about the possibility of privatizing ISS.

Bridenstine declined to name the companies that have expressed interest in managing the station, and said he was aware that companies may find it “hard to close the business case.” But he said there was still seven years to plan for the future of the station, and with the White House’s budget request “we have forced the conversation.”

Bridenstine’s approach to ISS’s future seems reasonable to me. At some point the federal government needs to face the station’s future, and now is a better time to do it then later.

The article however confirmed my generally meh opinion of Bridenstine. First, he reiterated his born-again new belief in human-caused global warming, a belief that seemed to arrive solely for him to gain the votes to get him confirmed in the Senate.

Second, he said this about LOP-G, NASA’s proposed international space station that would fly in lunar space.

Known as the Lunar Orbiting Platform Gateway, the system would be built by NASA in partnership with industry and its international partners, he said.

“I’ve met with a lot of leaders of space agencies from around the world,” he said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gateway in the lunar outpost because a lot of countries want to have access to the surface of the moon. And this can help them as well and they can help us. It helps expand the partnership that we’ve seen in low Earth orbit with the International Space Station.”

But the first element of the system wouldn’t be launched until 2021 or 2022, he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words illustrate why Bridenstine seems like a lightweight to me. LOP-G might be flying near the Moon, but nothing about it will provide anyone any access to the lunar surface. Not only will it not be operational in any manner for more than a decade, at the soonest, but it doesn’t appear designed to make reaching the lunar surface any easier. Instead, it mostly seems designed to justify SLS and Orion, and provide that boondoggle a mission.

Still, Bridenstine has in the past been generally in favor of commercial space, and that position appears to be benefiting NASA’s commercial crew partners. Prior to Bridenstine’s arrival the decisions of NASA’s safety panel acted to repeatedly delay the launch of the manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing. Now that safety panel seems to have seen the light, and is suddenly more confident in these capsules. I suspect Bridenstine might have had some influence here.

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3 comments

  • Tom Billings

    “Instead, it mostly seems designed to justify SLS and Orion, and provide that boondoggle a mission.”

    That, as far as the Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee is concerned, is the #1 priority of NASA, and any NASA Administrator that wants to have *any* budget had best remember it! Remember that with Trump as an insurgent inside his own Party, he simply cannot afford to piss off the 5th most powerful man in the US government, that being Richard Shelby. Bridenstine most certainly knows it!

    If Shelby keeps his word, and does not run in 2022, then things may change. I wonder if it is a coincidence that the first BFR robotic missions to Mars are scheduled for 2022, and if anticipating their launch has anything to do with that, …??? Perhaps not, but even if the BFR is flying, and if SLS is not, Shelby’s position will deteriorate dramatically.

    We must wait upon events.

  • wodun

    Here is an visualization of an orbit like the LOP-G’s. It would pass near the Moon weekly. I can’t remember the details but there is a very specific reason for the orbit chosen, however, it can always be moved into a different orbit at a later date.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X5O77OV9_ek

  • Localfluff

    The orbit is chosen to be useless. To support a surface mission an orbiter has to be in low Lunar orbit that is easily and regularly reachable by an ascent vehicle right below it. As it was done with Apollo. LOP-G’s only purpose is to give Orion and SLS something to do. No one involved has thought about anything else.

    NASA’s ambition for its human spaceflight is to in ten years be where China is today. Rare launches of a capsule that docks with another capsule in an orbit nowhere. Holding a crew of three for two weeks. At some visits, an EVA might be made, for fun. No science can be made under those circumstances. Due to its minuscule design, its useless orbit, the high risks involved, the rare and very brief visits by a small crew makes it impossible for LOP-G to produce any kind of contribution to science or support to space flight.

    In 2028 when it is announced that the first crewed SLS+Orion flight has been delayed another four years and will run another $20 billion over budget, because they suddenly discover that they have to redesign the entire life support system from scratch, the insane LOP-G plans will finally be scuttled. China and private companies are then already running permanent bases on the Moon, and several real sized space stations in safe and useful low Earth orbit. NASA will not fly a single astronaut after the ISS is scuttled in 2025. Never. Because they don’t want to.

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