NASA's plans to create a robust economy in low-Earth orbit where private spaceflight companies can flourish could eventually leave the agency's astronauts stranded on Earth with nowhere to go.
Why it matters: NASA hopes to play a lead role in developing a private spaceflight economy, including private sector astronauts. The agency sees this as a way to free it up to focus on farther afield goals like bringing humans back to the Moon and, eventually, to Mars.
- But if private industry takes over human spaceflight destinations in low-Earth orbit and funding and political support for NASA missions to the Moon or Mars dissipates, there may be no point in having a government-sponsored human spaceflight program at all.
Driving the news: On Friday, NASA announced it would create a market for private human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit.
- The agency wants American companies to fly their astronauts first to the International Space Station starting in 2020 and then later to space stations that companies operate themselves.
The catch: By largely giving up control of human spaceflight in orbit, a region of key importance for Earth science and other discoveries, NASA risks that its human spaceflight program might be more heavily impacted by political whims.
- Today, NASA uses the International Space Station, in part, as a testbed for further exploration of the solar system.
- With the ISS aging toward obsolescence, NASA may be carrying out that research on private space outposts in the future.
- But if, at the same time, the deep space missions get delayed or canceled, it's harder to see where NASA astronauts fit into that broader landscape.
"If the private sector takes over low-Earth orbit, and the political support for exploration dissipates, then what's the rationale for a government program?" — John Logsdon, founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, to Axios
Between the lines: It's realistic to imagine NASA's exploration goals will shift in the near or long term. The space agency is constantly facing political whiplash when new administrations take over and impose new spaceflight goals.
- The impetus for getting private companies into the human spaceflight game stems in part from the need to cut NASA's costs of launching to orbit.
- The agency currently spends about $1.8 billion of its $3 billion to $4 billion space station budget on transportation.
- If launch costs were reduced, that would free up money for NASA's broader exploration goals.
But, but, but: It's not yet clear exactly how much demand there will be in the private sector for human spaceflight to low-Earth orbit. A 2017 report looking at the market for a privately run space station found there isn't an obvious, profit-driven demand for such a facility in orbit, at least not yet.