House Committee Struggles With U.S. Future in LEO

House Committee Struggles With U.S. Future in LEO

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee tackled the issue today of the future of the United States in low Earth orbit (LEO).  Committee members and witnesses agreed that the United States needs to have a presence in LEO, but the questions are how long to maintain operations of the International Space Station (ISS) and when the commercial sector will be ready to assume the primary role of LEO operations to support human spaceflight.  No easy answers emerged.

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 European countries operating through the European Space Agency.  The first ISS module, Zarya, was launched in 1998 and it took 12 years to complete construction.  International crews have permanently occupied the facility since the end of 2000 rotating on roughly 4-6 month schedules.  NASA spends $3-4 billion a year on ISS operations and, as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) elicited today, the international partners spend another $1-2 billion a year.  That makes its annual operating costs about $4.5 – 5 billion, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.

L-R: Bill Gerstenmaier (NASA), Bhavya Lal (STPI), Betsy Cantwell (Arizona State University) Screengrab

At the same time, NASA and many of those partners want to move on to the Moon and Mars, another expensive endeavor.  The question is what capabilities will continue to be needed in LEO and the relative roles of the government and the private sector.

In the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, Congress required NASA to submit an “ISS Transition Report” by December 1, 2017.  Although NASA did not meet that deadline, it did submit the report on March 30, 2018.  The Trump Administration’s position, as put forward in that report and the FY2019 budget request, is to end U.S. government support for ISS in 2025 and rely on the private sector to provide LEO facilities that NASA can lease instead of own as it moves human exploration beyond LEO.

Congress is grappling with these issues, especially the timing of ending U.S. support for ISS while ensuring there is no gap while waiting for private sector capabilities to emerge.  The Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on this topic yesterday.

ISS is primarily a scientific laboratory for studying how humans react to spaceflight conditions and for performing research that could be useful on Earth.  Betsy Cantwell of Arizona State University testified on behalf of the science community at today’s House hearing.  She was co-chair of the 2011 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine Decadal Survey on life and physical sciences in space and currently co-chairs its Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space.  She stressed that the science community is “relatively agnostic” as to what LEO platform is available — government or private sector — as long it provides the research capabilities needed to address critical microgravity research and is affordable.

Gerstenmaier said that NASA foresees an ongoing need for LEO facilities for crew training and a U.S. presence in LEO is important as an element of U.S. leadership in space.  “I think there’s a need for us to stay in low Earth orbit as we go beyond low Earth orbit … It’s not an either/or situation.”

The question is what role the government must play versus the private sector.  Bhayva Lal of the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) of the Institute for Defense Analyses testified about a STPI report completed last year that looked at what can reasonably be expected from the private sector.  Her bottom line is that private sector space stations are feasible if they are much smaller than ISS, about one-third the size and one-twentieth the mass.  She said STPI identified 21 activities with potential to generate revenue on a commercial space station, but the private sector cannot do it alone. “When folks talk about commercial station they’re not talking about something as big as ISS. … More like Skylab. … With those kind of platforms it is feasible to generate adequate revenues that, with some amount of government payment, they could be commercially viable. But not ISS-sized.”

“Now is the time to start looking at what the options are,” Gerstenamier asserted.  And, as Cantwell, said  “We as a country are absolutely capable of innovating our way through this.”

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.