NASA IG: Decide Future of the International Space Station Soon

The International Space Station as it appears in 2018. Zarya is visible at the center of the complex, identifiable by its partially retracted solar arrays. (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

The sooner NASA can decide the future of the International Space Station (ISS), the easier it will be for the space agency to pursue its Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, according to a new report from its Office of Inspector General (OIG).

“Whether NASA decides to extend, increase commercialization of, or retire the ISS, the timing of each of these decisions has a cascading effect on the funding available to support space flight operations in low Earth orbit, ambitions for establishing a permanent presence on the Moon, and ultimately sending humans to Mars,” the report stated.

The recommendation is included in a new OIG report that identified sustaining a human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO) as one of seven key management and performance challenges NASA faces. [Full Report]

ESA (European Space Agency) astronaut Alexander Gerst exhales into an ultra-sensitive gas analyzer for the Airway Monitoring experiment, a study of airway inflammation in crew members. Results help flight surgeons plan safer long-term missions to the Moon and Mars and may help patients on Earth with asthma or other airway inflammatory diseases. (Credits: NASA)

NASA operates the space station in cooperation with space agencies from Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan. The partners have approved operations through 2024, after which time the facility is currently scheduled to be decommissioned.

NASA wants to continue flying astronauts to Earth orbit in some form to facilitate commercial activities and critical research into human health risks and demonstrations of technologies vital for long-term missions to the moon and Mars.

“NASA currently forecasts that research for at least 8 of 20 human health risks and 4 of 37 technology gaps will not be completed by 2024, meaning that even minor schedule slippage could push completion beyond the ISS’s current retirement date,” the IG report stated.

The question is whether to extend the operation of the space station, or to become one of many users on orbital facilities built and run by the private sector. The space agency does not want the expense of serving as an anchor tenant on either ISS or private stations.

Key IG Recommendations Implemented by NASA
Ensure there is a contingency plan for each human health risk not scheduled to be mitigated prior to 2024

Establish goals for Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) raising non-NASA funds to offset operating expenses

Improve coordination with other federal agencies involved in commercial space

NASA originally planned to end direct public support for the space station beginning in 2025. However, it has pulled back from that position as support has grown in Congress for extending ISS operations to 2028 or 2030.

The expense of any extension remains an issue as NASA ramps up the Artemis program.

“The cost of operating the ISS and transporting astronauts to and from the Station consumes about half of the Agency’s human space flight budget—$3 to $4 billion annually—until the Station’s planned retirement in 2024, but likely well beyond,” the IG report stated.

It is not clear whether the extension would be supported by the international partners, who NASA is also recruiting as participants in the Artemis lunar program. Those space agencies would face similar challenges finding funds to support both programs.

Key IG Recommendations Not Implemented by NASA
Ensure there is a contingency plan for each exploration enabling technology demonstration not scheduled to be fully tested by 2024

Complete all end of mission critical systems and open work related to nominal and contingency deorbit operations.

The report noted that NASA issued a Plan for Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development in June 2019 that seeks “to enable a commercially driven economy in a low-Earth orbit comprised of privately-owned, human-tended, or permanently-crewed platforms supported by U.S. crew and cargo transportation capabilities.

In particular, NASA said it would make 5 percent of its ISS utilization resources available for commercial efforts and provided a pricing policy for delivering cargo to and supporting crew aboard the ISS for commercial activities.

Furthermore, the Agency issued the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships Broad Agency Announcement in July 2019 that will allow commercial entities to enter into public-private partnerships to develop commercial destination technologies—including habitable modules, external platforms, and deployable structures—to the ISS….

NASA’s plan for the ISS, as detailed in the President’s FY 2020 budget request, envisions new commercial capabilities on the Station by 2025 as well as new commercial facilities and platforms in low Earth orbit. In addition, NASA announced plans to host private astronauts on the ISS and provide a range of capabilities for private researchers beginning as soon as 2020.

While it praised these moves as positive steps forward, the OIG said the space agency lacks performance metrics to determine how effective the efforts are in fostering commercial activities in Earth orbit. NASA has agreed to add these metrics.

The OIG believes that NASA faces a significant challenge in increasing commercial activities in LEO. The space agency’s decision to turn over the ISS National Laboratory to a non-profit organization, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, has produced disappointing results.

“In prior reports, we found that the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS) has had limited success in fostering commercial interest in ISS-based research, recruiting users for the ISS National Laboratory, and accomplishing tasks important to building a commercial space economy in low Earth orbit,” the report stated. “In addition, we found that NASA failed to oversee CASIS’s technical performance which contributed to the organization’s inability to meet expectations.”

NASA began an independent review of CASIS’s operations and progress in meeting its goals in August 2019.

In his response to the report, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine noted progress the space has made on commercial activities.

“NASA has released solicitations to enable commercial and marketing activities on ISS; flights of private astronaut missions; use of the ISS Node-2 forward port for a commercial element attached to ISS; a draft solicitation for free-flying commercial LEO platforms; and multiple solicitations for ideas that would enable sustainable, scalable commercial demand for use of LEO,” he wrote.

IG Ongoing and Anticipated Future Audit Work

NASA’s Management of Crew Transportation to the International Space Station This audit examines contractor schedule delays and related safety concerns, NASA’s plans for continuity of transportation to the ISS, and NASA’s pricing and timing strategies for missions using contractor transportation. [Full Report]

In addition, we will continue to examine issues related to the Agency’s efforts to facilitate commercialization in low Earth orbit.