Senators push NASA to extend ISS through 2028
Private companies are unlikely to take on the more than $1 billion annual cost to run the International Space Station by 2025 as NASA hopes, the space agency’s internal watchdog reported Wednesday.
A bi-partisan pair of U.S. senators said in a hearing that the report from NASA Inspector General provided a closing argument against the Trump administration’s proposal to privatize or abandon the orbiting laboratory so soon, saying NASA should extend its life until at least 2028.
“We’ve got this platform up there (worth) north of $100 billion, and it’s there,” said Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, ranking member on the Subcommittee on Space, Science and Competitiveness. “Abandoning this incredible orbiting laboratory where they are doing research, when we are on the cusp of a new era of space exploration, would be irresponsible at best and probably disastrous.”
“The defense rests,” quipped Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, the subcommittee’s chairman.
Congress last year asked NASA for a report on how it could achieve an “orderly transition” from a government-run station to a model where NASA and commercial users share the costs of missions in low Earth orbit.
The goal: to save money that could be redirected to deep space exploration of the moon and eventually Mars.
In its 2019 budget request, the Trump administration proposed ending direct government funding for the ISS by 2025, a timeline Cruz and Nelson argued is arbitrary and premature.
Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, said the administration picked the 2025 date to prompt serious discussion about the transition.
The space agency suggests spending $150 million next year to spur more commercial activity on the station, as a start toward NASA pulling back from full control of the outpost that has been occupied continuously for nearly 18 years.
Possibilities include companies taking over the entire station or adding commercial modules to it, or fielding simpler, smaller stations NASA could use for research the agency says is vital to its long-term exploration goals.
“I think we’re starting to see a real interest in low Earth orbit from commercial companies, where there’s just an inkling that there can be some revenue generation there,” said Gerstenmaier. “We have to walk between figuring out the right time for the government station to start ramping down, and the private stations to start coming in place.”
Paul Martin, NASA’s inspector general, said the ISS transition report NASA submitted to Congress in March — three months late — was overly optimistic.
“It is unlikely that a private entity or entities would assume the station’s annual operating costs, currently projected at $1.2 billion in 2024,” his report stated. “The scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plan.”
Including the cost of flying cargo and astronauts to and from the station, NASA spends between $3 billion and $4 billion a year on the ISS — about half its human spaceflight budget.
Any assumption that NASA would save that much money by cutting off direct support for the ISS in 2025 is "wishful thinking," Martin said.
But Martin noted that NASA’s alternatives to commercialization also involve risk. Participation from international partners, most notably Russia, is not assured beyond 2024. And although engineers have certified much of the station as structurally safe through 2028, the potential for components to fail will increase with age.
“At some point station will wear out, station will no longer be supportable, we’re going to have to deorbit station,” said Gerstenmaier. “We want to make sure that event doesn’t occur without us being prepared to look at a transition to another activity in low Earth orbit that can keep this continuous (human) presence moving forward.”
The U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Thursday morning will host another hearing on the subject.