Space Divorce

Donald Trump’s administration announced that it plans to gradually withdraw its financial support from the International Space Station. The plan is for the United States to completely stop funding at the end of 2025 and give way to private investors. The privatization of the largest international space project sounds absurd. Washington behaves like the co-owner of a bachelor’s pad who is ready to vacate the apartment and sell his room for party space. It is still not clear for the moment who is going to organize the party and whether they are going to invite “easy women.” Only few days ago one of the research aircraft of the European Space Agency was used as a techno party venue in zero gravity.

For the time being, you could earn money through space tourism. Regardless of the fact that only seven people have been able to afford this adventure so far, the idea continues to excite British and American entrepreneurs. Richard Branson established the “Virgin Galactic” company, which has been planning low orbit flights so far. The potential opening of the ISS to private investment might change his plans. The other big project is related to the most successful company in the sector, SpaceX, which belongs to the billionaire Elon Musk. He rather needs the elimination of the ISS, as it competes with his ideas.

Discontinuing funding for the current space science model shows us what U.S. policy priorities are. Talk about withdrawing financial support from the space station started at the end of January when some details about the draft Washington budget were leaked. The unquestionable reason for terminating this commitment is the Trump administration’s desire to direct the money elsewhere. From the time the ISS was established in 1998 until now, the United States has invested around $50 billion in the space station. This $2.5 billion per year would have otherwise been spent on NASA’s new space programs, or even more likely, on Musk’s company.

In fact, the ISS is likely to become the victim of the political clash between Russia and the United States. At the same time that the West introduced economic sanctions in 2014, the question of space cooperation was raised. An agreement was then signed that the two countries would maintain the station together until 2024. It is interesting that when this decision was made, nobody asked the other participants in the project. In addition to the European Space Agency, the Japanese Aerospace Agency and the Canadian Space Agency also participated in establishing the station. None of these countries is in a position to build a completely independent program for space research. The conflict between the United States and Russia would lead again to a division of the scientific field and a race between the superpowers. As strange as it may be, such a possibility was set up back in 1998 when the entire space system was constructed. It consists of two modules: a Russian orbital segment and an American orbital segment. In the beginning, their supplies were provided to them by the two state agencies, Roscosmos and NASA. In 2010, Washington announced that the maintenance costs of the space shuttles were too high, and so the only remaining spaceships that fly to the space station are the Russian rockets “Proton” and “Soyuz.”

From a technological point of view,the development of space science at the beginning of the new millennium has proved the success of the Soviet theory. The idea of creating orbital stations is credited to Sergey Korolev, the founder of the Soviet Union’s space program. During the 1970s, when the first station Mir was created, NASA’s goal was to colonize the moon. Despite its initial success, today American science cannot brag about consistent results in that enterprise.

The United States and the Trump administration currently rely on the concepts and technology of Musk, the founder of SpaceX, a company which skyrocketed to becoming the world leader in successful rocket launches. At the same time, the Russian space agency is experiencing serious problems. To begin with, it was forced to construct a new launch site because the Soviet-era one, Baikonur Cosmodrome, was located in Kazakhstan. Today, Vostochny, the new site for Russian space rocket launches is ready, but launches from there have proved difficult. The reasons for the problems are not only technical, but also associated with the poor preparation of the scientific specialists. Word is that the second launch, which took place in the Far East, failed due to an incorrectly installed navigation program. As a result, a rocket carrying 19 satellites fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

The other big problem for the Russians is the high price of launching rockets and the carrier rockets themselves. The construction and launching of the Soyuz-2 and Proton-M is almost 30 percent more expensive than SpaceX’s most well-developed system, the Falcon-9. For this reason, Roscosmos lost NASA’s contracts. Moreover, the development of the Chinese rocket industry doesn’t leave much room for the profit which the Russians were making until recently. The main conceptual difference comes from Elon Musk’s idea of using the launchers multiple times. At the moment, the Russian scientists have to play catch-up. To help resolve the problem, the Russians may resort to the Soviet legacy of its numerous scientific developments, and most likely rely on the experience of the Buran space shuttle.

Is the space divorce a possibility? Unfortunately, at the moment it seems that it is inevitable. Back in 2016, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced the possibility of separating from the ISS. “The Russian part of the station is constructed in such a way that it can function independently, whereas the U.S can’t,” he explained. Moscow’s plans foresee that in the worst-case scenario, ISS modules could be included in an entirely new Russian development.

With this in mind, President Trump announced that the United States would shift its focus toward moon colonization and deep space. The moment has been perfectly chosen considering the problems in the Russian space industry. At the moment, Washington and NASA rely entirely on Musk and SpaceX’s achievements. That’s where the initiative for introducing private capital into space research comes from. However, Musk’s success is not due to his own capital or the profit he earns from introducing electric cars or space ships. At the moment, the biggest source of funding for his empire is the federal and state government contracts. This is the case with the supply of equipment for NASA or battery production. SpaceX has a $1.6 billion federal contract for space transportation. In 2010, a $465 million contract was signed by his other company, Tesla, with the Department of Energy. According to the contract, Musk’s company is to produce batteries, which are to be used by other companies. Not long after the contract was signed, the state of Nevada agreed to tax breaks worth $1 billion for the construction of a huge plant.

In addition, all the scientific capabilities of the entrepreneur Musk’s companies were built with support of NASA investment, and can be attributed to the American higher education system, which is also subsidized by the government. So private initiative in a sector which is currently not bringing in any serious revenue, and, on the contrary, has enormous costs, looks quite doubtful. Musk’s big success is that he has convinced U.S political leadership to redirect part of its expenses in order to finance his endeavors. The efforts include the construction of a new space station in deep space, the creation of a lunar base and a potential future Mars mission. The whole infrastructure is based on the idea of colonizing the Red Planet. The enterprise would not bring in any serious revenue from economic activity, the money would still come from the U.S. budget and the taxpayers, but would pour into Musk’s superior and competitive company instead of going to NASA. Naturally, the agency is not going to cease to exist. There is opposition in the Senate against terminating U.S. participation in the ISS.

Sen. Bill Nelson asserted that the Trump administration would meet ferocious opposition. According to Nelson, the move would ruin the aerospace industry in Florida which depends on NASA’s activities in that state. So despite the impressive results, private participation in space exploration doesn’t seem like a real alternative, at least for the time being. The American withdrawal from space cooperation is the result of political moves and an attempt to put pressure on Russia. The involvement of entrepreneurs in this sector of science is more likely to be Trump acting on a whim rather than a real alternative to state funding. Money would certainly continue to come from subsequent administrations and taxpayers, and would simply be gifted by a few mega-industrialist tycoons. We are left with the hope that space exploration will not turn scientific achievement into a tasteless party.

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