by Douglas Messier
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.
“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 Report — Executive 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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”