Cruz, Nelson Criticize Plan to End Direct ISS Funding in 2025

International Space Station (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Sharply conflicting opinions about the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and America’s path forward in space were on view last week in a Senate hearing room turned boxing ring.

In one corner was NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenamier, representing a Trump Administration that wants to end direct federal funding for ISS in 2025 in order to pursue an aggressive campaign of sending astronauts back to the moon. NASA would maintain a presence in Earth orbit, becoming one of multiple users aboard a privatized ISS or privately-owned stations.

In the opposite corner were Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Normally divided on almost every issues, the senators were united in their anger at what they viewed as the Trump Administration’s unilateral decision to end station support as well as their determination to keep the $100 billion facility operating until at least 2028 for the sake of NASA, space exploration, America and their states. The station’s current end date is 2024.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson

“As far as this committee is concerned, and I can tell you as far as this senator is concerned, that proposal is dead on arrival,” Nelson told Gerstenmaier.

Serving as a sort of referee was the hearing’s other witness, NASA Inspector General Paul K. Martin, whose response to both parties was essentially, ‘Hey, good luck with that.’

The occasion for this opening battle over the future of America’s space program was a hearing held by the Senate Space Subcommittee. Despite the high stakes, Cruz and Nelson were the only senators to show up because the stakes are particularly large for their own states.

The hearing gave Gerstenmaier a chance to to present a plan worked out by NASA and the Trump Administration for transitioning away from the space station as the agency begins to send astronauts on deep-space missions in the early 2020’s. [Full ReportExecutive Summary]

Congress ordered the space agency to deliver a transition report by the end of December as part of the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The agency delivered the report three months late on March 30.

Sen. Ted Cruz

The two senators were less bothered by the tardiness of the plan than the lack of details in it. Cruz said the authorization act called for “a stepwise approach to eventually transition from the ISS once there is the emergence of a proven and reliable commercial alternative.

“Congress decided to take a step-wise approach due to the long history at NASA in which major programs like Constellation and the Space Shuttle have been eliminated prematurely,” he added. “These decisions had long-term repercussions at NASA, its workforce, the local communities surrounding NASA Centers, and American taxpayers who face increased replacement costs for lost capabilities.”

“Nowhere in federal statue is there a request from Congress seeking a hard deadline to end federal support for ISS, to cross our fingers and hope for the best. We’ve seen that act play out too many times in our national space program and it’s time we learn the lessons of history,” Cruz said.

Gerstenmaier said NASA is beginning the process of consulting with private industry about future commercial prospects. Last week, the space agency has released a research announcement requesting proposals to study the future of human spaceflight commercialization in Earth orbit.

William Gerstenmaier

“The research announcement solicits industry concepts detailing business plans and viability for habitable platforms, whether using the International Space Station or a separate free-flying structure, that would enable a space economy in low-Earth orbit in which NASA is one of many customers,” the agency said in a press release.

Martin, who called NASA’s transition plan for ISS “high level” and “overly optimistic,” said operating space station currently costs the space agency between $3 and $4 billion annually, which is roughly half the human spaceflight budget. He doubted whether the facility could be commercialized.

“Based on our work, we question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business using the ISS independent of significant government funding,” Martin said. “From our perspective, it is unlikely that a private entity or entities would assume the station’s annual operating cost, currently projected at $1.2 billion dollars in 2024.

“Such a business case requires robust demand for commercial market activity. 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,” he added.

Martin also warned against expecting too much in savings in privatizing ISS or continuing to operate in Earth orbit on private facilities.

“The amount of savings NASA may realize may realize through commercialization of the ISS may be less than expected given that significant expenditures – particularly for crew and cargo transportation for NASA-sponsored flights to LEO coupled with ongoing civil servant and infrastructure costs – are expected to continue past 2025 even if many activities transition to a privatized ISS or another commercial platform,” he said. “Consequently, any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up 3 to 4 billion dollars beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking.”

Axiom commercial space station design. (Credit: Axiom Space)

Martin said that extending station operations until 2028 is technically feasible because the station’s major elements already have been or will soon be certified to function for at least that long.

“That said, unless the agency receives a substantial increase in funding or can dramatically reduce costs, it will be hard pressed to continue supporting ISS operations under its current model while attempting to fund other initiatives such as the lunar gateway, a lunar orbit and a moon landing, and a crewed Mars mission,” Martin added.

While SpaceX Founder Elon Musk would send astronauts to Mars tomorrow if he could, NASA is much more cautious about long-duration missions into deep space. NASA has identified 20 top human health risks that it needs to mitigate, and 40 technology gaps it needs to close first.

The space agency estimates that it will not have completed research work aboard ISS on at least six human health risks and four of the technology gaps by the station’s current end date of 2024, Martin said.

Expedition 30 crew members Dan Burbank and Andre Kuiper perform blood draws for the Integrated Immune investigation. Data collected during the Functional Immune study will build upon findings from this investigation. (Credit: NASA)

In addition, two other other human health risks and 17 of 40 technology gaps won’t be closed until 2024. Even minor schedule slippages could push that vital research beyond the space station’s current end-of-life date, he added.

Whenever the space station is decommissioned, NASA estimates it will take three years and $950 million to do so, Martin said. The space agency hasn’t completed a formal plan to do so yet.

Cruz was adamant that the White House would not have the final word on when the ISS program ends.

“Let me be clear, as long as I am the chairman of the Space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong support, strong bipartisan support in the United States Congress,” he said. “And as long as Article I of the Constitution remains intact, it will be Congress that is the final arbiter of how long the ISS receives federal funding.”

Even if Congress and the Administration agree to extend the life of ISS to 2028, there is one other obstacle that remains: the international partners. Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada have only committed to operating to station until 2024. Whether they would approve another extension is unknown.

It took several years after the Obama Administration announced plans to extend ISS operations beyond 2020 for all the partners to agree to the current deadline. The space station uses up a substantial portion of their budgets, which are much smaller than the ones NASA receives.

Artist’s conception of China’s Tianhe-1 space station. (Credit: China Manned Space Engineering)

Meanwhile, ISS will soon have competition from a Chinese space station that is expected to be completed in 2022. China has been busy courting Europe and other space powers to cooperate on the Tianhe-1 facility. European astronauts have already begun training for joint flights aboard Shenzhou spacecraft.

“Prematurely canceling a program for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars,” Cruz warned. “We cannot afford to continue to pursue policies that have the consequence of creating gaps in capability, that send three and a half billion dollars in taxpayer money to the Russian government or create a leadership vacuum in low Earth orbit that provides a window of opportunity for the Chinese to capitalize upon.”

  • onions kill cancer

    Finally, some bipartisan commonsense after pathetically failing to stop the appointments of Bolton, Pompeo and Haspel. It’s not so much that ISS should be preserved — it should — but that nothing will replace it. Additionally, so much tax dollars were poured into Cargo Resupply Services as well as Commercial Crew it would be a colosall waste.

  • duheagle

    Mr. Nelson will only get a say if he is still in the Senate next year – not, by any means, a foregone conclusion. Mr. Cruz, meanwhile, reveals himself to be – notwithstanding all his previous rah-rah rhetoric about space commercialization – just another apologist for, and scrambler after, pork when the chips are down.

    Using the incompleteness of deep space mission-related research as the hook upon which to hang indefinite operation of ISS is, at best, disingenuous. ISS has been there for 20 years and there has been a noteworthy lack of urgency about addressing such deep space mission-related issues for most of that time. Anyone who thinks the remaining “to-do list” items will be attended to in the next six – or even the next 10 – years is laughably naive.

    And it is, frankly, time for commercial interests to shit or get off the pot where genuinely commercial LEO presence is concerned. If all the quasi-commercial activity currently employing the government-paid-for ISS can’t be profitably done on a purely commercial platform or platforms – using purely commercial crew and cargo launch and return services – then I don’t favor the post-2024 continuation of ISS as, in effect, a corporate welfare program for a favored few businesses.

  • Michael Halpern

    The issue is, ending the ISS is complicated, to put it mildly, if we do it too early, commercial interests will have insufficient R&D for the case for commercial stations to easily be made, and transferring ISS to commercial operators, is only a good idea to those who don’t understand how old and maintenance intensive the ISS is. So now you can come to the conclusion of replacement, ok how long will it take to get the replacement up?

  • Jacob Samorodin

    While i would be the first to defend free enterprise, I too have my doubts about the
    ISS continuing to function with crews on board using only commercial. private funding to keep the proverbial lights on. Besides! What possible commercial use of ISS is viable and profitable?
    1) Producing and purifying interferon? It can be done, but it wouldn’t be profitable.
    2) Producing purified gallium-arsenide crystals for electronics? Not profitable.

  • Jacob Samorodin

    Don’t you remember the lyrics from a George Harrison song? All things must pass?
    That means every physical thing, my car my house my body, your body, all orbiting satellites, all rocket boosters, all launch facilities, and the ISS, will all eventually come to an end.

  • windbourne

    How exactly was CRS and CC a colossal waste?
    CRS is a fraction of the price that Shuttle and SLS would have been.
    And CC is expensive, but only because so much extra went to Boeing.

    Finally, once we have multiple crafts for cargo AND humans, we will never again lose space access.

  • windbourne

    Replacements can go up fast, esp for BA. I would love to see BA put a BA330 on the ISS next year, and then deck it out for habitat. I believe that they can get one up there in 2019.

    OTOH, Axiom will likely use Europe’s metal cans. If ESA is going to go with China, then I say skip Axiom or at least Axiom with Europe. Regardless, the earliest they can get a can up there is 2020.
    As to direct replacement of the ISS, once these units have been turned into habitats (i.e. with full life support including galley, head, births, etc) and NASA vetted, then spin them off and push them up to 300 miles or so. Ideally, some of these science hubs will be sent along with the space stations for permanent usage.

  • Michael Halpern

    I somewhat doubt ESA will go with China if they can help it

  • onions kill cancer

    “How exactly?” Sink the ISS in 2025 and all those “multiple crafts” will be grounded with nowhere to go… for who knows how long.

  • Michael Halpern

    You also have to get all the experiments and equipment to the replacement

  • P.K. Sink

    This is gonna be tricky. You don’t wanna dunk ISS too soon and pull out the legs from under the transport guys. But you also don’t wanna keep ISS around so long that it stifles the potential customer base of the habitat guys.

  • P.K. Sink

    Whoa dude…that’s deep.

  • P.K. Sink

    That will be interesting to follow. The ESA astronauts are studying the language as part of their training.

  • Michael Halpern


  • Cameron

    I agree, the ISS was not designed to be, nor would it be a very good commercial station. Besides it is old for a space station, much of the tech is now very dated, and it is expensive to maintain.

    With new large launchers coming online, the prospects of launching a new, commercial station are improving. If it is profitable, it’ll be done!

  • Arthur Hamilton

    And where do you propose to spend the money that is not spent on those “multiple crafts?”

  • onions kill cancer

    You cannot unspend “the money” which was appropriated exclusively for ISS crew resupply and transport in the hope of creating a low earth orbit economy, led by the private sector. NASA’s own Inspector General has said that isn’t really viable without massive government subsidies. So unless ISS is preserved the only option is for NASA to co-operate in the Chinese Space Station, and still utilize the services of SpaceX plus the rest, or build a new low earth orbital station.

  • duheagle

    Doing commercial-oriented R&D is supposed to be one of the justifications for a commercial LEO platform. If commercial firms are doing R&D on ISS only because it is heavily subsidized, that makes ISS an impediment to the establishment of a purely commercial presence in LEO.

    I agree that the idea of privatizing ISS is nonsense. All along, ISS has required the full-time work of five of its six crew just to maintain it. That is not going to improve as ISS ages further. Any economically feasible commercial platform has to be designed for minimal necessary maintenance man-hours.

    I don’t know what the minimum time would be to get a “replacement” platform into LEO, but I don’t think the answer is as long as the six years remaining before ISS’s earliest potential termination date of 2024.

  • Michael Halpern

    Commercial R&D will eventually be on commercial platforms but it would be nice to have a production version of zblan fiber production to help pay for it already through most of R&D. Right now ISS is available, so we should use it.

  • duheagle

    Not that surprising, really. Europeans involved in multi-national projects, even within the EU, routinely know how to speak at least two languages – their own native tongues plus English, which is what the EU generally uses as the standard language when running multinational projects. Generally speaking, the smaller a given European country is, the more languages its average citizens tend to be able to speak. Learning Mandarin, for those ESA/EU personnel involved in any Sino-European space projects, will just be SOP.

  • duheagle

    The NASA IG didn’t say a purely commercial presence in LEO was impossible. What he did say was impossible was commercializing ISS in its declining years. The latter seems an entirely reasonable conclusion.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    ISS is a government research station. That is what it was designed and is being used for. To truly commercialize LEO/BEO with thousands of humans, requires a whole new station concept. Stations like NASA’S Lunar Gateway concept is disappointing. It basically is a mini ISS or a smaller Chinese station.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    NASA can still cooperate with the Chinese. But, the Senate has to administer any cooperation. In essence it will be like SLS/Orion.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Despite the retirement of the shuttle, NASA has and will have a lot more independent capability, through commercial space, to get a station of some sort in LEO. ISS is the culmination of government owned LEO exploitation. You could say that it is part of Von Braun’s plan for LEO that he visioned. Of course, he didn’t forsee the rise of the billionaires that would change his space vision from a government owned/controlled monopoly to a part of the old American Dream.