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Starliner and space station
An artist’s conception shows a Boeing Starliner space taxi approaching the International Space Station. (Boeing Illustration)

For months, the White House has been talking about transitioning the International Space Station to commercial control by 2025, and now NASA’s administrator says he’s working on it.

In a Washington Post interview, Administrator Jim Bridenstine says “there are people out there that can do commercial management” of the station.

“I’ve talked to many large corporations that are interested in getting involved in that through a consortium, if you will.” he told the Post.

Bridenstine declined to name the corporations, and the usual suspects — including Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the station — are mum on the matter.

Even the companies that have voiced interest in managing orbital outposts, such as NanoRacks and Axiom Space, say they’d prefer to have their own base of operations rather than taking over the U.S. segment of the international station. NanoRacks, for instance, has proposed creating outposts using converted rocket upper stages.

Last month, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg sketched out his vision for a “space ecosystem” in low Earth orbit that could comprise a dozen outposts, including hotels and in-space manufacturing facilities.

Such an ecosystem could make for an “economically viable marketplace,” and provide an opportunity for Boeing to create a space transportation system connecting those outposts with Earth, Muilenburg said.

In the Post interview, Bridenstine acknowledged that it could be challenging for companies to “close the business case” for taking over operations on the existing space station.

The White House’s drive to commercialize the space station is motivated by its interest in reducing the federal government’s multibillion-dollar outlay for operations, but NASA’s own inspector general has questioned whether that strategy will work.

“Such a business case requires robust demand for commercial market activities,” Inspector General Paul Martin said at a Senate subcommittee hearing last month. “Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans.”

Congressional leaders already have voiced strong opposition to the strategy. Back in February, when the White House announced its intentions, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said that the idea ran counter to federal law and was coming from “numbskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget.

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