Privatizing the ISS, Deregulating Space Travel, and Making Money

Jon Watkins, MJLST Staffer


To many, space feels more exciting than it has been in years. SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy recently to great fanfare and YouTube’s second-biggest live stream ever; the stream peaked at over 2.3 million concurrent viewers. In a move which is perhaps intended to ride the coattails of this popularity, the Trump administration recently announced a new policy intended to bolster the domestic space industry through deregulation and commercialization. While information discussing what the administration specifically wants to do is somewhat limited, some clues do exist. One of these clues is a NASA internal document which allegedly contains a proposal to turn the International Space Station over to private ownership by 2024.

Coverage of the ISS proposal tends to fall along predictably partisan lines- National Review is head-over-heels for the proposal, while Vox is strongly against it. However, both accounts fail to discuss whether the proposal would actually be legal. National Review suggests that private companies that pay the U.S.’s share of operations on the space station would automatically be permitted to conduct research on board. However, this is anything but clear. The ISS is governed by an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) that each of the fifteen governments involved in the ISS are signatories; Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) between NASA and each other Space Agency in addition to several contractual and non-contractual agreements between space agencies. The UN Outer Space Treaty and other documents are incorporated into the IGA.

Articles 5 and 9 of the IGA vindicate National Review to some extent- utilization rights and jurisdiction are indeed derived from the provision of goods to the ISS. Article 9(3)(a) of the IGA in particular also seems to imply that private entities selected by partners (like NASA) may use “user elements” of the ISS, even though other private entities would not be able to do so. This probably makes it possible for NASA to transfer their use rights to a private entity, at least insofar as NASA has use rights over a portion of the ISS. However, NASA hasn’t actually provided that much of the ISS– while Russia owns the Zvezda, Pirs, Polsk, and Rassvet modules, NASA only owns the Zarya module outright, and shares ownership of the Destiny, Kibo, and Columbus modules with other agencies. This means that NASA has exclusive rights over a tiny portion of the ISS, and any private entity which purchased NASA’s rights would be forced to share all systems on the station in the same way NASA does currently.

Limiting the user rights to the portions owned by NASA isn’t the only limitation which would be faced by a private entity which were to purchase NASA’s rights in the ISS- the IGA and MOUs are filled with fairly detailed restrictions on behavior and research on the ISS, of which one of the most important is Article 9(5): “Each Partner shall assure access to and use of its Space Station elements to the other Partners in accordance with their respective allocations.” This is essentially an anti-monopolization provision, which is reasonable in the context of an international cooperative project, but may be a highly unappealing provision for a private entity. As another example, Article 11.6 of the MOU between NASA and the Russian Space Agency states that “the entire crew will operate under a single timeline for performance of all operations and utilization activities.” This is a similarly unappealing provision for a private entity which is interested in operating on its own schedule and performing its own research. It is unclear what private entity would want to operate under these restrictions, and no private entity has yet stated that they intend to do so.

Additionally, in what is likely a minor technicality, Article 16.3 of the MOU between NASA and the Russian Space Agency states that “the Parties undertake to grant high priority to their Space Station programs in developing their budgetary plans.” The Trump Administration’s allegedly expressed intent to eliminate government funding for the ISS may violate this provision of the MOU, since it means ISS funding is clearly not a “high priority.”

To be completely fair to the Trump Administration, the path they’ve chosen here is at least predictable. Much of the discussion of permits for switching launchpads in the announcement was referenced earlier in Gwynne Shotwell’s speech in October at the National Space Council, and the general trajectory of the space industry since the second Bush administration has been towards deregulation and commercialization. The Bush administration stated in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 that NASA should “develop a sustained human presence on the Moon . . . as a stepping stone,” which has more than a facial similarity to the Trump administration’s refocus on developing a lunar base. The Obama administration was likely forced to defund some of these more expensive projects with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 right after a major recession, but the Obama administration’s 2010 space policy purported to “[lean] farther forward in support of U.S. business interests than any previous space policy,” and recommended that the Federal Government “Minimize, as much as possible, the regulatory burden for commercial space activities.”

Deregulation and commercialization of the American space industry are therefore clearly nothing new. However, what is new are fairly aggressive proposals to use private rockets to get human payloads into space. Private rockets, an external safety report states, are insufficiently safe and an optimistic proposal to privatize NASA’s share of the ISS, a proposal which is likely legal under the international agreements governing the ISS.