Opinion: The Trump administration is sucking NASA in a space-shaped bubble | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 13.02.2018
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Opinion: The Trump administration is sucking NASA in a space-shaped bubble

So the Trump administration wants to privatize the International Space Station. Should we be surprised? Not really. But it's feeding into the biggest financial bubble of the century, says Zulfikar Abbany.

There are times when I could get so angry about the way we are, the way society and the sciences are developing that I kid myself into thinking the best course of action is to take a deep breath, and do or say nothing until the moment passes. This is one of those moments. But I've decided to jot down a few words first - to flag a moment in history as it were (if that's not too conceited) - and say point-blank that the if the current commercialization of space activities doesn't hit a very hard wall very soon, then my name is Donald Duck. 

So what's this about? Well, you may have heard that the US president, Donald Trump, wants to turn the International Space Station into a commercially-run venture. And I'm left wondering whether he knows the ISS's location, or what it does.

Don't get me wrong. This is no "isn't he dumb" blurb, because if Trump's intentions are true (fake intentions, anyone?), then they come from a dungeon far darker and more densely populated than I care to imagine.

Trump speaks to his supporters and he's clever enough to have got himself elected, so let's leave that at that.

Furthermore, as an apparently exclusive article in The Washington Post suggests, citing a NASA document the newspaper says it's obtained, it is in fact the "Trump administration" that is "working on a transitional plan that could turn the station over to the private sector."

This should not surprise us. The US's National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which Trump signed into law last March, made clear his administration's desire to see more American space activity served to the private sector. 

"A wall of opposition"

US Senator Ted Cruz celebrated the law as the first of its kind in seven years and suggested Trump could now "send Congress to space." But a year on, Cruz is saying he hopes the "recent reports of NASA's decision to end funding of the station 'prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.'"

Internationale Raumstation ISS nach dem Ablegen der Raumfähre «Atlantis» (picture-alliance/dpa/ESA/NASA)

The International Space Station: space science by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 13 European countries

The Washington Post has Cruz referring to "numbskulls" at the US Office of Management and Budget. "One of the dumbest things you can do is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead," the newspaper quotes Senator Cruz as saying - and isn't that a change of tune?

It's not, however, the "wall of opposition" which the Post anticipates. Even in Europe, a usually outspoken Jan Wörner, who heads the European Space Agency, is aiming for more measured tones. Wörner told the dpa newsagency that NASA's plan could be read as positive: At least, he says, the US wants to use the ISS after its current phase ends in 2024.

And what of the private sector? Hasn't it helped "disrupt" an otherwise lethargic and sluggish public institution? That's been its charge against NASA since the 1980s. But now the American agency routinely contracts private companies like SpaceX and Orbital ATK for supply missions to the ISS, countless private actors are launching their own satellite constellations, and SpaceX - oh mighty vision of the Musk man - has just propelled itself to the top of the rocket leader board by successfully test-launching the Falcon Heavy.

It seems as though the US can't - or won't - do it without the private sector. (It never really has: The Lunar Module on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission was designed and built by the Grumman Corporation.)   

But the ISS will still need public support, says Wörner, even after 2024. And even if a private company assumes all of the US's responsibilities, it "wouldn't be fatal."

Alive but missing the point     

Wörner is half politician, so he may have little option but to "see the glass as half full" rather than half empty. But even a glass half full can be half full of poison (if we're still permitted to quote Woody Allen).

You see as far as I'm concerned, the private sector may by a useful facilitator and motivator - it even put me through private schooling - but when it comes to science, the private is poison. It breathes interests that lie far beyond those of the greater, public good. And I thought the sole aim of the International Space Station, as a multinational collaboration between the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and a raft of European countries, including Germany, France and the UK, was to be one of the biggest, non-profit science collaborations humankind has ever dreamt of and witnessed.

USA SpaceX Raketenstart (Getty Images/AFP/J. Watson)

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy puts the US in ahead. American astronaut Mark Kelly says privatizing the ISS is threat to that lead

It is true: The ISS is an expensive endeavor. It costs the US more than $3 billion per year (€ 2.4 billion) and all nations together somewhere between €100 and €150 billion over a ten year period. And the US has a history of not wanting to pay for things it can't control. Take a look at the United Nations. There the US has to contend with the whims of its Russian, Chinese, French, and UK counterparts, who all hold veto rights (although the UK often leans stateside). But there are no veto rights in space, not yet. Unless, of course, the US does turn the ISS into its own private enterprise - then it could compete against a Chinese space station on its very own terms. Unilaterally. A Trumpism if ever there was one.

Aside from these rather naïve ethical objections to the US privatizing the ISS, there is also one of fiscal responsibility. The bloated level of private investment in space will worry some in the industry, be they private actors or within government. At a space conference in Glasgow at the start of February, the University of Strathclyde's "data.space 2018," one European government official confirmed my suspicions (off-the-record) that the space industry was indeed setting itself up for a monumental financial bubble.

Space could become the biggest bubble of the century. There is so much money flying around in space at the moment that it reminded us both of those heady days of the 1990s dotcom boom … and bust. Have we learned since then? Sure we have. Check the internet today and you will see tech firms sturdier than nations. But it's all a confidence trick. Power lies in but a few hands, and you no longer hear about those who fail.

Privatizing the ISS is not only privatizing it, it's also concentrating power.

And Trump's new "truth" will focus on certain technologies that come from certain companies. And those who are ahead - and right now America is first - will control the roost.

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