U.S. President Donald Trump has proposed turning over to private businesses U.S. operations on the International Space Station, which is currently run jointly by the U.S. and Russian governments.
In his 2019 budget for the U.S. government, Trump on February 12 proposed to end NASA funding for the space station by 2025. The budget would set aside only $150 million to encourage private development of the station, and devote the savings to Trump's goal of sending astronauts once again to the moon.
"We're building capability for the eventual human exploration of deep space and the moon is a stepping stone," NASA's acting chief financial officer, Andrew Hunter, said.
But key U.S. legislators and space experts are expressing concern about the plan. Senator Bill Nelson, who went into space in 1986, said that "turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space" made no sense.
Retired NASA historian Roger Launius said the plan would affect all the other countries involved in the space station, including Russia and countries in Europe and Asia that have participated in space-station projects.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin, was open to the proposal, but said defunding the station before 2028 "would not allow sufficient time" for a private-sector transition.
NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece of the station was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA's space shuttles in 2011.
Private businesses already have a hand in operating the space station. The end of the shuttle program prompted NASA to turn over the business of supplying the station to private firms.
SpaceX and Orbital ATK have been making deliveries of supplies since 2012, and Sierra Nevada Corp. will begin making shipments with its crewless minishuttles in a few years.
SpaceX and Boeing, meanwhile, are developing crew capsules to fly astronauts to and from the space station within the next year. These commercial flights will represent the first astronaut launches from U.S. soil since NASA's shuttles stopped flying.
While the Trump budget plan says it places renewed support on returning humans to the moon, followed by human expeditions to Mars and elsewhere, few details are provided.
NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot,called the plan "very exciting" with lots of potential, despite what he said were some hard decisions that went into it.