Cruz, Nelson: Congress, and Only Congress, Will Decide When to End Funding for ISS

Cruz, Nelson: Congress, and Only Congress, Will Decide When to End Funding for ISS

Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) made it absolutely clear at a hearing today that Congress, and only Congress, will decide when to end U.S. government support of the International Space Station (ISS). Arguing that the Trump Administration’s proposal to end government funding for ISS in FY2025 was merely a political decision by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), both insisted that ISS has a lot of life left and should not be abandoned until it is certain that a commercial alternative will be there to replace it.

Cruz represents Texas, home to NASA’s astronaut corps and ISS Mission Control.  Nelson represents Florida, home to the launch sites where many current and expected commercial cargo and commercial crew flights that service ISS originate.  Both are up for reelection this year.

Senators Ted Cruz, R-TX (left) and Bill Nelson, D-FL (right) at May 16, 2018 hearing on the International Space Station. Screengrab.

Cruz and Nelson were key Senators involved in passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act that required NASA to submit an ISS “transition plan” by December 1, 2017 on how NASA plans to move from the current government-driven space station era to one where NASA is only one of many customers for commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO).  NASA did not meet that deadline, submitting its report on March 30, 2018, after the Trump Administration sent its FY2019 budget request to Congress.  The budget request revealed that it wants to end U.S. government direct funding of ISS as of FY2025.  FY2025 begins on October 1, 2024.

The NASA Transition Authorization Act asked that the Administration provide cost estimates for operating ISS until 2024, 2028 and 2030.  The year 2028 is often used as a benchmark because it is the 30th anniversary of the launch of the first ISS module, the Russian-built, U.S.-owned Zarya module.  NASA paid Russia to build Zarya, hence its status as a U.S. module.

The hearing today before the Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee was brief and attended only by Cruz and Nelson, but it got the point across.  Congress, and only Congress, will decide when government funding of ISS will end because under the Constitution Congress determines how taxpayer money is spent.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA AA for Human Exploration and Operations, testifying at May 16, 2018 Senate hearing on International Space Station. Screengrab.

Cruz grilled Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, on why NASA missed the statutory deadline to submit the ISS Transition Report.  He also demanded to know why NASA had not provided all drafts that were sent from NASA to the White House and rejected as he and Nelson requested in a February letter.  The implication is that OMB, not NASA, picked the 2025 date.

Cruz’s effort to get Gerstenmaier on the record as to who chose the date were unsuccessful.  Gerstenmaier carefully navigated the intense questioning without implicating any particular part of the Administration.

The answer really did not appear to matter in any case, since the message from Cruz and Nelson was that only Congress will decide when it is time to end U.S. Government funding of ISS.  As Cruz said in his opening statement, “No where in federal statute is there a request from Congress seeking a hard deadline to end federal support of ISS, to cross our fingers and hope for the best. … 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.”

Nelson said that the “good news” in the ISS Transition Report that ultimately was submitted to Congress showed that ISS “has plenty of operational life left.”   The report said that major components of the ISS had been certified for operation until at least 2028 “and probably beyond.”

The two Senators made their opposition to ending government support  for ISS in 2025 known as soon as the Administration revealed the proposal.  Today, Cruz said that although he and Nelson disagree on many issues, on this one they are “on the same page.”

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin testifying at May 16, 2018 Senate hearing on International Space Station. Screengrab.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin was the other witness at the hearing.  He said that the 13 audits of the ISS program by his office over the past 5 years and another that will be released soon yield skepticism that the commercial sector will be ready by 2025 to field commercial platforms that NASA can use instead of ISS for the research needed to send humans beyond LEO — to the Moon and Mars.  “Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the Station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the Agency’s current plan” to end direct support as of FY2025.  NASA has forecast that “at least 6 of 20 human health risks requiring the ISS for testing and 4 of 40 technology gaps will not be completed by the Station’s planned retirement in September 2024.”  If those risks “cannot be fully tested on the ISS, NASA may have to accept higher levels of risk than planned for future exploration missions.”

Martin also warned not to expect great savings once NASA does end direct support for ISS.  Because NASA still plans to use commercial LEO facilities and fund related commercial crew and cargo services, as well as infrastructure such as the Mission Operations Office, any assumption that the $3-4 billion a year currently spent for the ISS program will be available for reallocation to other exploration missions is “wishful thinking.”

He also pointed out that someday, whenever that is, NASA will need to decommission and deorbit the ISS, which will take three years and cost $950 million.

The key is that NASA must “redouble its efforts to maximize the potential of whatever time remains on Station,” Martin said.

Gerstenmaier did not disagree.  He said NASA’s focus is on determining the best strategy to transition to a new model where it is just one of many customers of commercial space stations, which he anticipates will be much smaller — and therefore less costly — than the ISS.  Most important is continued U.S. leadership in human spaceflight “regardless of what happens next in this transition.”  Through the new commercial LEO imitative proposed in the FY2019 budget request, “we hope to have in operation multiple alternatives to the current model of space station operations that can both meet growing commercial needs and meet Government needs at a lower total cost to the Government than exists today.”

Cruz asked if China’s plan to have a space station in LEO by 2022 is part of an effort to take leadership in LEO away from the United States.  Gerstenmaier replied that “we should be aware” of China’s activities and included in U.S. planning.

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