THE International Space Station will be largely privatised and its functions outsourced to commercial companies on a model similar to the railways in Britain according to one of the main partners in the groundbreaking project.

The Director of Exploration at the European Space Agency, has told the Sunday Herald that plans by Donald Trump’s administration to cut funding for the ISS by 2025 will lead to the increased involvement of private companies.

“The president’s budget for NASA proposes to end direct funding by end of 2025 but the language is rather meaningful,” said David Parker from his base at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands

“Trump says he plans to end direct funding but not funding altogether. So, through some way or another there will be more commercial operations on the ISS and governments as customers will buy these. It will be like how the railways in the UK are operated.”

Europe – under the auspices of the European Space Project – is one of the five collaborators in the station, along with the United States, Russia, Japan and Canada.

The ISS has been continually crewed since 2000 and its development was a major breakthrough in international technological cooperation.

Parker says discussions are ongoing among member states of the European Space Agency about the future of the station.

“The ISS is technically fully evaluated until 2028 and that could be extended. The question is how is it going to be used and that’s a question we’re asking our member states,” he said.

“They tell us they want to be in lower orbit but we certainly have to find ways to minimise costs going forward because we want to move outwards into the solar system. We are promoting the commercial sector and examining how private sector can further be involved.

“The key is getting the right balance between our missions in lower earth orbit and deep space.”

The United States spends $3.5 billion a year on the ISS, through NASA, with an additional $1bn coming from the other contributors combined, leaving the project heavily reliant on the US funding.

Nasa told the Sunday Herald that a transition to a commercial entity was currently “being explored”.

“In 2016 all partners agreed to continue operating the space station to 2024,” said Nasa spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.

“NASA will continue to work closely with the administration and the stated policy is to end direct funding for the space station in 2025. However, it doesn’t imply that the space station will be ended altogether.

“We’re just at the beginning of exploring a transition to a commercial entity or any number of possible new avenues. It’s possible the ISS will become commercial but it remains to be seen and we’re at the start of the process.”

The commercialisation of the ISS would mark a new chapter in the gradual privatisation of space exploration.

Billionaire Elon Musk has led the way in this and his SpaceX company, along with Orbital ATK, already provide cargo supplies to the ISS.

This week, three astronauts from the 54th expedition will return to earth near the city of Dzhezkazgan in Kazakhstan. The crew – two Russians and an American – are set to touch down on Tuesday after 168 days, 2,688 orbits of Earth and 71 millions miles travelled.

Nasa is quick to emphasise the collaborative achievement of the space station. All the crew on board are required to learn both English and Russian and they train together for two-and-a-half years before beginning their expedition.

“The space station is really an exemplary template for how nations can work together. We’ve been doing it now and we were doing it even during the Cold War, working on space exploration,” said Schierholz

“It’s not just the US and Russia, there are 15 member nations and all the crew members work together and they frequently comment on what happens on the ground does not negatively effect their relationship in space.

“Their joint goals are working together to advance space exploration. We regularly point to how this is an example for co-operation on earth.”

However, some observers have sounded warning that privatisation will pose a threat to the continued international collaboration.

SNP MP Carol Monaghan, who sits on Westminster’s Science and Technology Committee, says that privatisation is a “reckless” proposal that should be cancelled.

“One of the greatest strengths of the International Space Station is that it remains a truly global endeavour,” she said.

“Tensions that may exist in other spheres are naturally forgotten as scientists and engineers collaborate in the quest for advancement.

“Privatisation of the space station potentially jeopardises this major success story. It is a reckless proposal and one which I hope is abandoned."