Bolden Cites Business, Science As Reasons to Extend ISS; SLS Design Is NASA's

Bolden Cites Business, Science As Reasons to Extend ISS; SLS Design Is NASA's

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told a National Research Council (NRC) committee this week that there are two main reasons for extending the lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) beyond 2020:  business and science.   He also said that the Space Launch System is actually a NASA design.

Bolden spoke to the NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight.  The committee was set up in response to a provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to contract with the NRC in FY2012 for a study on the future of the human spaceflight program.  NASA provided the funding to the NRC late in FY2012 and the committee began meeting last December.   It heard from Bolden at that time.  This week’s meeting was an opportunity for him to update the committee and respond to questions that emerged in the  past 10 months.  It also was the first time committee co-chair Mitch Daniels heard from him.  Daniels, a former Republican Indiana Governor and now the President of Purdue University, replaced former defense secretary Bill Perry as co-chair this spring.   Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell space scientist, is the other co-chair.  The committee’s task is to articulate the value proposition for human spaceflight — what does the nation get for the money it expends. 

Under current plans, the ISS partners (the United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada) will keep the space station operating until 2020.  NASA, however, is making the case for extending it to 2028, a year that will mark the 30th anniversary of the launches of the first two ISS modules.  The modules have a 15 year design life, but NASA is confident they can operate for twice that.

The burning question is whether there is sufficient value to justify eight more years of spending.  NASA’s budget for the ISS is about $3 billion a year, not including the costs for developing the commercial crew systems or purchasing services once they become available.   Commercial crew development is expected to be completed around 2017 and presumably the price for U.S. commercial crew flights will not exceed what NASA currently pays the Russians for such services, so that may not add much to the annual operating costs post-2020.  Nonetheless, $3 billion a year is a lot especially as NASA’s budget is increasingly constrained and trade-offs inevitably will have to be made between maintaining today’s programs versus future space exploration.

Bolden’s business argument is that the companies who are investing their own funds in commercial crew need to be assured of recouping those costs and the longer NASA needs those services, the more revenue they will make.   NASA is hoping that commercial crew will become available in 2017.  Though one goal of commercial crew is for the companies to find non-NASA users, the NASA business is a staple.   If ISS is terminated in 2020, NASA business will represent a very small market, however.  If ISS is extended to 2028, the market looks somewhat better.   NASA is paying a large percentage of the development costs and how much the companies are investing of their own money is proprietary, so it is not possible to know how much revenue they need to achieve a decent Return on Investment (RoI), but it is obvious that the longer time frame is more advantageous.

As for science, Bolden argues that scientists need 5-10 years to come up with ideas for experiments and implement them.  They need to know that the ISS will be available for more than just a few years or they are not likely to utilize it.  The ISS is a scientific laboratory and while a great many experiments have been conducted over the past 13 years of permanent human occupancy, to date none has been a “killer app” that unambiguously demonstrates the value of performing research in a microgravity environment. Committee member Pascale Ehrenfreund made the same point, noting that she has several ISS experiments but is wondering whether to propose any more since the future of the ISS is uncertain.

Ehrenfreund wanted to know when a decision would be made.  Bolden exclaimed that ISS is a steppingstone to the universe, but that if we are not going to move foward in exploring space, there is no point in continuing ISS.   One decision point will be when the NRC committee makes its report, he said, because it all gets back to the value proposition that the committee is expected to articulate.

Bolden also defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and, in response to a question, remarked that the design of the Space Launch System (SLS) originated at NASA.  SLS is new rocket being developed by NASA to enable space exploration beyond low Earth orbit, including the ARM and eventually human trips to Mars.

In February 2010, as part of the FY2011 budget request, President Obama terminated the Constellation Moon/Mars program initiated under the George W. Bush Administration and proposed that the United States spend 5 years developing “game changing” space technologies before deciding what rocket to build and where to go.  Congress disagreed and in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to build SLS with an initial capability of 70 tons to low Earth orbit, growing to 130 tons.  Senators Bill Nelson (D-FL), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Richard Shelby (R-AL) were seen as instrumental in insisting on NASA developing a new rocket immediately, not in 5 years, and including those specifications in the law.  Detractors of the rocket sometimes derisively refer to it as the Senate Launch System — one designed not by NASA but by Senators.

Bolden, however, made clear that SLS is a NASA design.   A committee member referred to SLS as being “old technology”  and wanted to know why Congress told NASA to pursue “the old stuff.”   Bolden replied that “Congress didn’t pick the vehicle, we did.  We picked it based on many decades of going over and over and over…what we need.”  He described SLS as an open architecture that can incorporate new game-changing propulsion technology if it emerges, with nuclear propulsion as an example. 

A proposed alternative — to rely on rockets developed by the commercial sector that would be refueled in orbit at fuel depots — is not realistic in his view.  Turning the nation’s deep space human exploration program over to the commercial sector is “a risk that I don’t think I am willing to undertake for the nation. To say that we’re going to turn the nation’s exploration program over to private enterprise.   I’m not ready for that yet.”

He also eschewed the notion of a five-year hiatus before picking what launch vehicle to build, as the Administration proposed in 2010.  He said industry’s response was that when NASA came back in five years, it might well find an empty room.  Human space exploration “is not something from which you can take a break,” Bolden emphasized.



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