At a recent press conference, Bill Hill, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, noted that the agency is looking to turn over the International Space Station to a privately held company in the next decade.
"NASA’s trying to develop economic development in low-earth orbit"
During a panel discussion on NASA’s plans for a mission to Mars, Hill discussed some of the agency’s long-term plans for reaching the red planet. These plans include close collaboration with commercial spaceflight companies such as SpaceX. "NASA’s trying to develop economic development in low-earth orbit," Hill said, "Ultimately, our desire is to hand the space station over to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-earth orbit, we figure that will be in the mid-20s."
The statement came just before astronauts aboard the station were preparing to install a new docking adaptor to the station. Hill’s timeline coincides with the Obama administration’s plans to wind down the United States' commitment to the station as it ages. The station’s operational life has been extended until 2024.
The station was originally designed to last through 2015
Since construction began on the station in 2000, the International Space Station exists in a harsh environment in the 16 years that its orbited the Earth. Originally designed to last through 2015, the station’s primary contractor, Boeing, is studying whether or not it will be feasible to operate the station beyond 2028, almost twice the amount of time it was designed for.
With the rise of a private space industry, and a decline in governmental commitments to the station, commercial partners will be essential in maintaining the station. However, because of the station’s cost, it’s not clear exactly what this arrangement will look like, or if any of the commercial space companies out there will be interested. As NASA sets its sights on Mars, the fate of the station will likely depend on its role in future interplanetary missions.