Spaceflight Insider

NASA considers handing over ISS to a private company

ISS 135

The International Space Station (ISS) as seen by the departing crew of Space Shuttle Atlantis during the final mission of the program, STS-135. Photo Credit: NASA

The International Space Station (ISS) could soon fall into private hands, according to a statement made by a NASA official on Thursday, Aug. 18. The agency is mulling the possibility of handing-off control of the orbital laboratory to a commercial company by the mid-2020s.

NASA revealed the possibility during a press conference focused on future manned missions to Mars.

“NASA’s trying to develop economic development in low-Earth orbit,” said Bill Hill, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development. “Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit.”

Earth's Aurora Borealis as seen from the International Space Station photo credit Scott Kelly / NASA

The space station hosts over 400 experiments per year. Many of those are supported through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). Through them, many commercial companies are flying payload and experiments to the complex. Additionally, the U.S. side of the station is supported by commercial resupply ships and, within the next year, crews will be sent to the ISS with commercial spacecraft. Photo Credit: Scott Kelly / NASA

The agency did not reveal any further details about the possible ISS handover, not even specifying any potential “buyers”. Moreover, as the station is jointly managed by international partners, it is unclear how will they react to this proposition. The space station could be transferred to a commercial company as a whole or it could end in handing over only NASA’s part – this issue also needs to be determined.

NASA’s announcement was coincidentally made not long after a statement made by the Roscosmos last week, about the possibility of cutting down its station crew size from three to two.

While the Russian space agency and NASA are committed to maintaining the current level of space station operations until 2024, the latest declarations from both sides seem to suggest that these two biggest ISS players are trying to end their commitment to the orbiting outpost and it may even come sooner than expected.

NASA spends a hefty $4 billion every year on space station operations and transportation – about 20 percent of the agency’s annual budget. The agency is continuously being criticized for allotting too many funds for Earth science and low-Earth orbit operations instead of focusing on deep space missions. Therefore, handing over the ISS activities to the private sector could help save NASA funds necessary for the planned crewed endeavors to asteroids and Mars.

While the possible handover is still in its infancy, there is already one entity that currently manages some activities aboard the ISS for NASA – the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS). They are a U.S. government-funded national laboratory and manage some operations regarding research aboard the space station.

It is also worth noting that in 1999 the MirCorp company was created to be a private operator for the Russian Mir space station. The company used the station as a commercial platform, albeit briefly, for a variety of space operations like a privately funded cargo resupply mission, a crewed expedition, and even spacewalks. Thus, the idea of a commercially owned space station isn’t new in the history of space operations. Due to a variety of reasons, including the fact that Mir was aging (it was well past its designed lifetime of 5 years), the Russian space station was deorbited in March 2001.


Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

Reader Comments

One of marketing tools use to “sell the ISS -was it’s use as a research lab for zero g experiments.A reasonable argument ;but i do not see any important “ground breaking” experimental results(the pun unintended)
AT costs of at least $4B /year it is time let private industry take it over .Can anyone seriously doubt Hubble and unmanned robes are the wave of the future
The $4B can be spent here on earth for drug treatment/alcohol rehabilitation or the eliminating the cancer of ridiculous college education costs

Or the money could be used to pay down the national debt. Just because something is cut doesn’t mean you have more money to spend because we are still running a deficit.

The thing with spending taxpayer money is that it is an ideological competition for a limited resource. Everyone has their own priorities on how the budget should be spent. This is why we have so much lobbying and corruption. Access to a $3.7 trillion budget is quite the prize.

The only way to reduce the corruption is to have a smaller budget. And the only way for people interested in the space industry to have the freedom and budgetary security to pursue their own interests, is to conduct these activities outside of the government as much as possible.

You never know when some fever will sweep the nation and demand that all money be spent on funneling money to their corrupt cronies in the drug treatment, education, or big pharma industries.

NASA is a “private” company. How does selling it on improve anything?

Perhaps a private company with vision, will install plasma rockets and either raise the ISS to a much higher orbit, or to L1 or L2. Then it could be preserved and used as a way station/gas station for Lunar, Mars, or asteroid mining operations.

Also, add several B330 units and you could have a great vacation spot!

Excellent idea! I have done some investigation into repurposing the ISS as a future lunar space station or perhaps at a Lagrange point as you stated. The initial paper should be out in a month or two.

Such commercialisation would require agreement from NASA, ROSCOSMOS , ESA, JAXA, and the CSA. This isn’t an insurmountable problem but it will obviously take some time for any such agreement to be brokered.
Another concern regards the personal operating the ISS. We currently rely on the considerable talents of professional astronauts and their considerably experienced backup teams. There are currently NO commercial astronauts and no one outside of the national space agency users that fully understand how to operate the station.

I think everyone is looking at this wrong. NASA has no intention of “selling” the ISS. What they are offering is the right to manage it. Anyone who steps up will be expected to continue to extend the same services currently available to the current partners in the ISS. The will also be free to expand operations on the ISS as long as it does not compromise the existing service.
NASA has been actively increasing the stake private companies have in the ISS. By the 2020s at least 4 private companies should have launch services going to the ISS. Bigelow is the first company to have a privately owned module on the ISS, NASA has made it clear that others are likely to follow. NASA has 5 companies developing habitat modules that could be attached to the ISS. When it is ready to had over management they should have not only the several government customers, but a small host of commercial customers.

I don’t know, seems like a tall order. Telling business to create a need in space.

Asteroid mining is talked about but I think it’s more wishful thinking like the personal home supercomputer.

A Lagrange point robotic research lab will probably end up being ISS ultimate fate..

As far as humans remaining on board ISS just so ppl can say “hey it’s a commercial business now”. ….really??

Telling business to create a need in space.

Yes, command economies don’t work. But just because you or I can’t see what people will do on a space station in the future, doesn’t mean that other people have that same lack of creativity. Capitalist societies are filled with examples of people thinking of ways to create products and services that central planners could never imagine.

The real question is if a privatisation of parts of the ISS will lower barriers of entry enough for individuals and companies to take advantage of it. Who knows but we do know that the creativity of tens of millions of capitalists will find a way if there is one.

No one could predict all the ways the internet would be used when it was created too.

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