ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

Despite the failure of three cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) over the past 8 months, operations aboard the orbiting laboratory are fine, NASA and Boeing officials told Congress on Friday. The question is what the future will be for ISS and, perhaps more importantly, for low Earth orbit (LEO) research opportunities after ISS ends.

Those questions were addressed — if not definitively answered — at a June 10, 2015 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Witnesses with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier; Boeing Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration John Elbon; NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin; Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Shelby Oakley; and Penn State physiologist and kinesiologist James Pawelczyk, who flew as a payload specialist on the 1998 Neurolab space shuttle mission.  (Boeing was the prime contractor for the ISS and continues to provide sustaining engineering for the U.S. segment.)

Current Status of ISS.   Gerstenmaier and Elbon repeatedly said ISS today is fine despite the losses of three cargo ships over the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation’s (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 in October 2014; Russia’s Progress M-27M in April 2015, and SpaceX’s CRS-7 (SpX-7) in June 2015.

That is not to say nothing of value was lost.   Gerstenamier estimates that NASA lost $110 million worth of cargo on the SpX-7 mission alone.  NASA bears that cost, just as the researchers who lost their experiments are not reimbursed. Gerstenmaier said NASA is now looking at buying insurance for its cargo.

Of most concern is the International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was on SpX-7.  Two IDAs are needed for the two upcoming commercial crew vehicles — SpaceX’s Crew Dragon and Boeing’s CST-100 — to dock with the ISS.  The second is already awaiting launch, but a third will have to be built to replace the one lost on SpX-7.  Some parts are available and the schedule can be met, but there will be a “dollar loss” to the ISS program, Gerstenmaier said.

He added some research experiments were lost twice — first on Orb-3 and then again on SpX-7 after they were quickly reconstituted for reflight.  And the Progress M-27M failure delayed the launch of three ISS crew members (now scheduled for July 22 Eastern Daylight Time), reducing the amount of research that the ISS crew can conduct.

In essence, basic operations of ISS were not affected by the three cargo
spacecraft losses, but  “the research impacts”  cannot be recovered.

Responsibility for Cargo Losses and Accident Investigations.  The role NASA is playing in the investigations of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 failures was a repeated theme during the hearing.  Gerstenmaier and NASA IG Martin reminded the committee that they were commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the investigations take place under FAA’s regulations.  That means that the respective companies take the lead.  Gerstenmaier stressed, however, that NASA as well as the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are fully engaged in those investigations and NASA can do its own independent review if necessary.   He believes both Orbital ATK and SpaceX are being completely transparent in their investigations, however.

Gerstenmaier said the three accidents over such a short period of time was unexpected, but “the tragedy will be if we don’t learn from these events.”  It is a “painful” learning process, but one better learned on cargo than crewed missions, he added.

Russia as a Partner.  Gerstenmaier reassured the subcommittee that Russia is a strong and reliable partner on ISS despite tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments here on Earth.  The day before this hearing, the President’s nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), told a Senate committee that Russia is the “greatest threat” to the United States.   Gerstenmaier, however, said that the cooperation on ISS “transcends” those differences.  “The challenge of human spaceflight … transcends … the toughness of
the outside world.”  He characterized the technical
relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS as
“extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental
tensions” and the two are working together “extremely effectively.”  The two countries are “mutually dependent” in terms of ISS operations and interact on a daily basis.

Research on the ISS.    Pawelczyk stressed the need for more crew hours dedicated to research.  Crew time is the biggest constraint on research and “we need that seventh crew member.”  NASA plans to increase the current six-person ISS crew to seven once the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational.

Most importantly, to learn what is needed to successfully send humans to Mars, biological research on the ISS must expand to cover the entire mammalian life cycle and incorporate the effects of the partial gravity humans will experience on Mars, Pawelczyk urged.  For that, the centrifuge capability on the ISS must be “improved.”   The space station originally was intended to include a module with a 2.4 meter centrifuge capable of experimenting with humans in varying levels of gravity (“g”), not just the microgravity of a space station in LEO, but the centrifuge module was cancelled due to budget constraints.  The Moon has 1/6 g and Mars has 1/3 g.  How humans might respond to those partial gravity levels rather than microgravity is an open question.  

Pawelczyk also cautioned that as ISS ages, more time may be needed for maintenance, further reducing the amount of time available for research.  GAO’s Oakley made a related  point.   She said NASA’s top priorities for the ISS are safety and crew transportation, maintenance, and research, in that order.  If costs increase for the first two, she warned, that could mean less money for research.

Pawelczyk praised NASA for its turn around in the past 5 years in supporting the biological and physical scientists who want to do research in space, calling it a “transformation” that is “nothing less than remarkable.”  NASA is listening to the advice from the National Research Council’s Decadal Survey that recommended priorities for physical and biological research in space, he said, and a new generation of researchers is emerging.

Extending ISS to 2024 Or Beyond.  Several subcommittee members said that Congress has not yet authorized operation of ISS beyond 2020, citing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, implying that it could not continue beyond that without further congressional action.  The 2010 Act (P.L. 111-267), however, authorizes operation of ISS “through at least 2020” so does not establish a formal end date. Absent further congressional action, presumably it could continue.  At the moment,  S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, would extend ISS through “at least 2024.”  The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (for which there is no Senate counterpart yet) asks for a report from NASA on the costs for extending ISS to 2024 or 2030.  That provision also is in the version of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act adopted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in April. 

Elbon said that Boeing’s analysis shows that ISS will be structurally sound at least until 2028, but the key is finding researchers to use it and providing adequate funding.

Gerstenmaier was asked how many of the ISS partners have committed to extending ISS operations to 2024 as proposed last year by President Obama.  Only Canada, he replied.  He is optimistic that Russia will agree by the end of this year.  Japan may approve late this year or early next year, and the European Space Agency (ESA) perhaps in 2017, he forecast.

NASA IG Martin said that several reports by his office have looked at extending ISS to 2024 and while NASA says there are no major obstacles, his office disagrees.  In particular, it found NASA’s cost estimate of $3-4 billion per year for ISS operations “optimistic.”  Martin said ISS costs have increased approximately 8 percent per year on average, but was 26 percent between FY2011 and FY2013. 

GAO’s Oakley agreed.  She said GAO has not seen any formal costs estimates from NASA for operations beyond 2020. 

What’s Next?  ISS has a finite lifetime.  There is no disagreement on that, only on whether it will stop in 2020, 2024, 2028 or later, and what, if anything, comes next.  

NASA’s plans are focused on moving out into cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars, not on building more research facilities in LEO.   Gerstenmaier said NASA is “looking to see if we can leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies,”  emphasizing that a facility on the order of the ISS may not be necessary. Small spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital ATK Cygnus outfitted for research could be sufficient.  SpaceX is working on a DragonLab version of the Dragon spacecraft, for example.  NASA wants to use ISS to “let the private sector understand the benefits” of research in microgravity and determine if there is a market there.

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