Boeing’s Mulholland Urges Vocal Advocacy for ISS Amid Budget Gloom

Boeing’s Mulholland Urges Vocal Advocacy for ISS Amid Budget Gloom

Boeing Vice President John Mulholland is urging International Space Station researchers to get busy advocating for the ISS to guard against budget cuts while Congress faces difficult funding decisions. Although Boeing agrees that commercial space stations are the future, ISS will be needed until they are ready. Increased funding is required to pay for a deorbit space tug and to ensure robust science results, including upgrading the 12-year-old AMS-02 cosmic ray detector.

Mulholland spoke to the annual gathering of the research community that uses ISS for a wide variety of science and technology experiments. The International Space Station Research and Development conference is taking place in Seattle this week.

“With the trades in front of our Congress created by the debt ceiling [agreement], we will be faced with difficult budget cycles in the near future. So if this is important to you, it is necessary to be vocal. Your voice matters. It is essential to the continuity of science and it is essential to the stable on-ramp of CLDs [commercial space stations].”

Boeing operates the ISS under contract to NASA.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency. It’s old. The first modules were launched 25 years ago and the space station has been permanently occupied with international crews rotating on roughly 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.

The United States wants to keep it going until 2030. Canada, Japan and Europe agreed. Russia also extended its participation, but only until 2028, the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first Russian-built module, Zarya. Russia’s participation in ISS has remained relatively unchanged despite the grim geopolitical situation since its invasion of Ukraine.

NASA is working with four U.S. companies to build commercial space stations through Public-Private Partnerships to succeed ISS, hoping at least one will be in place by the end of the decade to allow a transition period. Called Commercial LEO Destinations or CLDs they would ensure a continued U.S. human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO). NASA does not want to build another space station itself, but to be just one of many customers purchasing services from those companies. Axiom Space is working on a design where the modules will first attach to the ISS before separating, while the CLDs being developed by Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman will fly independently from the begimning.

John Mulholland, Boeing Vice President and Program Manager for ISS. August 1, 2023. Screengrab.

Mulholland said Boeing is fully behind the CLD concept, but noted the challenges those companies face both technically and in finding enough customers to make it profitable. “They will get there, but it won’t be easy.”

“I certainly salute all the commercial platform providers, which have two very difficult challenges directly ahead of them.

“First, this is an unproven market. With all the great strides that we’ve made in science, the vast majority of research going to LEO is underwritten by the federal government. The commercial transition will not be without challenges.

“Second, the platform providers have a large design, development, test, and evaluation hill to climb with myriad technical cost and schedule risks ahead of them. They will get there, but it will not be easy. I want to highlight this is not an attack on commercial low Earth orbit destinations. CLDs are the future of LEO following the ISS mission and we need to allow them to follow their natural development cycle.”

He went on to say that ISS doesn’t need just stable funding untl the CLDs are ready, but “slightly increasing” budgets.

One reason is the unanticipated need to build a space tug to deorbit the 420 Metric Ton facility at the end of its lifetime so pieces do not randomly reenter and threaten people on Earth. The plan to use three Russian Progress spacecraft to deorbit the ISS fell into doubt after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Russia’s reluctant decision to remain in the partnership only through 2028.

NASA estimates the space tug could cost $1 billion. The FY2024 budget request is $180 million. That’s part of a total ISS FY2024 request of almost $3.3 billion: $1.036 billion for operations and maintenance, $266.6 million for science, and $1.957 billion for crew and cargo transportation.

The $228 million request for CLDs is on top of that.

Mulholland also said increased funding is needed to maximize the amount of research conducted on ISS including an upgrade to the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer-02, or AMS-02, cosmic ray detector that is seeking clues to the nature of dark matter.  AMS-2 was installed on the outside of the ISS in 2011 and astronauts repaired the coolant system during four spacewalks in 2019-2020. Mulholland said an “amazing upgrade that will essentially double the science capability” is planned but will require “almost an entire cargo flight to do it and so it deserves a plus-up in the budget ahead.”

The Biden Administration requested $27.2 billion,  a 7.1 percent increase, for NASA in FY2024. But the Fiscal Responsibility Act negotiated by Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as part of the debt limit deal calls for holding total government discretionary spending to FY2023 levels. How much NASA will get is yet to be determined, but agency officials acknowledge they won’t get all they asked for.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that funds NASA last month. It keeps NASA basically at its FY2023 level, although the Space Operations account that includes ISS is slightly less. The FY2024 request was $4.5 billion compared to $4.25 billion in FY2023 and the committee approved $4.2 billion. They didn’t specify where the reductions should come from, but specifically said they supported the deorbit tug, CLDs, and commercial crew and cargo transportation.

The House Appropriations CJS subcommittee also marked up its bill, but it has not gone to full committee yet. The draft bill is available, but not the accompanying report with details.  All that is known so far is that Space Operations fares a bit better than in the Senate bill, $4.35 billion.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.