Space Station Could Be Split to Aid Privatization, New NASA Chief Says

Jim Bridenstine, NASA’s administrator, said President Trump’s budget proposal put the agency’s efforts to privatize the International Space Station “on steroids.”

WASHINGTON — NASA is working on plans to commercialize the International Space Station, which currently costs up to $4 billion a year to maintain, the agency’s new administrator said on Wednesday.

Jim Bridenstine said the agency will consider “a range of options” to make private operation of the space station feasible.

“Some of it might be that the I.S.S. wouldn’t exist in its current form,” he said. “But maybe it gets split into a number of different components. Some of it could be de-orbited.”

Mr. Bridenstine said no decision has been made, but that President Trump’s budget proposal in February put the agency’s privatization efforts “on steroids.”

The administration has proposed eliminating direct federal contributions to the space station by 2025 and allocating $150 million to develop “commercial successors,” including companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin, which was started by Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

Seven in ten Americans still believe the United States government should remain a world leader in space exploration, despite the growing role of private companies, according to a study published on Wednesday by Pew Research Center.

NASA’s options for privatization may be limited by the international agreements establishing the I.S.S. A coalition of over a dozen countries helped assemble the structure, the first piece of which launched into orbit in 1998.

The United States has spent almost $100 billion on the space station, and even some Republicans in Congress are skeptical of the move to privatize its mission.

“As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can do is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, said after the budget proposal was released in February.

Mr. Cruz declined to comment on Mr. Bridenstine’s statements on Wednesday.

In the new Pew survey, 63 percent of respondents said that monitoring Earth’s climate should now be among the top priorities for NASA, compared to just 13 percent who favored prioritizing a return of astronauts to the moon.

The Trump administration moved earlier this year to cancel the Carbon Monitoring System, a NASA research program that costs $10 million per year.

In a meeting with reporters, Mr. Bridenstine said that ending that program would not signal a lack of investment in other climate research missions.

“We’re committed to that, and I’m committed to that, and we’re going to continue doing it,” he said.

Mr. Bridenstine was confirmed by the Senate to run the agency in April in a 50-49 vote split along partisan lines. It marked the end of a seven-month-long nomination process slowed in part by views he had expressed on the science of climate change.

In 2013, while representing Oklahoma in the House of Representatives, Mr. Bridenstine gave a speech reprimanding the Obama administration for excessive spending on climate research. He has also questioned the assertion that humans are a primary cause of global warming.

Mr. Bridenstine said that his beliefs on climate change have evolved.

“I want to be really clear, I do believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas,” he said. “You know, it’s over 400 parts per million at this point, which is greater volumes than we’ve seen before, and that’s because of human activities.”

“There is no agency on the face of the planet that has the credibility to study it and understand it — so that policymakers can make good decisions — than NASA.”

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