NASA Safety Panel Worries if ISS Successor Will Be Ready in Time

NASA Safety Panel Worries if ISS Successor Will Be Ready in Time

NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned this week that NASA’s effort to get the private sector to build commercial space stations to replace the International Space Station is on a “precarious trajectory.” At the same time, ISS is “feeling its age” and coping with greatly increased warnings about potential collisions with space debris, especially from Russia’s antisatellite test.

Patricia Sanders, Chair, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, testifies at May 8, 2019 House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

ASAP Chair Patricia Sanders minced no words in her assessment of NASA’s “Commercial LEO” program to incentivize companies to build space stations in low Earth orbit as successors to ISS. NASA wants to have at least one operating in time to allow a gradual transition from ISS. The current plan is for ISS to end in 2030.

The concern is there will be a gap between the end of the ISS and a U.S.-built successor just as there was a 6-year gap between the end of the Apollo program and the first space shuttle flight, and a 9-year gap between the end of the space shuttle and the first flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.

Crew Dragon is the product of the commercial crew program, a Public-Private Partnership where SpaceX and NASA both invested in development, but SpaceX retains ownership of the system and NASA is just one customer purchasing services from SpaceX. The company has already launched two non-NASA Crew Dragon missions, Inspiration4 and Axiom-1, with several more on the books.

NASA also used PPPs for the commercial cargo vehicles that resupply ISS. Encouraged by what it views as the success of commercial cargo and commercial crew, NASA has embraced PPPs for many of its human spaceflight programs, including new space stations.

The commercial space stations are expected to be much smaller and less expensive to operate than the ISS. NASA anticipates a robust commercial LEO economy where many organizatons will want to conduct research on these space stations and NASA will have to pay only for the capabilities it needs to advance its own interests. But the companies need some government investment to get started and a reliable estimate of how much NASA will buy in order to build a business case that will attract other investors.

NASA has initial agreements with four companies, but ASAP is not convinced any will be ready in time because of the slow pace of defining NASA’s requirements, inadequate NASA resources, and the possibility ISS will not last another 8 years. The first modules were launched in 1998 and it has been permanently occupied by international crews since November 2000.

“NASA is on a highly risky path to avoid a gap” in LEO, Sanders said. “The ISS has to endure until the next destination is available” and  “efforts towards establishing a commercial LEO destination, despite competent management, are on a precarious trajectory to realization on a schedule and within the projected resources.”

ASAP member Mark Sirangelo from the University of Colorado said the ISS is “feeling its age” and needs to be actively managed “every hour of every day.”  Persistent leaks in the Russian segment and problems with the U.S. spacesuits that prevent the astronauts from conducting routine maintenance on the outside of the U.S. segment, means NASA needs to retain its “engineering skepticism” about the risk going forward.  ASAP also urged NASA to expedite getting new spacesuits, or Extravehiclar Mobility Units, up to the crew. The existing spacesuits are out of service except for emergency spacewalks because of recurring problems with water in the helmets.

The International Space Station. This image is a mosaic of photographs taken by the departing Crew-2 in November 2021. Credit: NASA

He also pointed out that Russia’s November 15, 2021 antisatellite test more than doubled the debris environment around the ISS. Consequently, the number of conjunction notifications that warn of potential collisions has increased substantially. From January 1 through June 1, 2022, there have been “681 conjunction notifications, of which 585 of these or just about 74 percent, trace back to the Russian ASAT test.”

As for the commercial space stations, ASAP member Amy Donohue from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and former Homeland Security Advisor to the NASA Administrator, reported that NASA does not expect to have its requirements identified until 2024.  ASAP was told NASA expects the first commercial space station in 2029 and “that doesn’t leave much margin” to avoid a gap.  “NASA really needs to acknowledge and plan for the underlying reality that maintaining a continuous human presence on orbit now and into the future is going to require significant government investment.”

On another topic, Sanders reiterated concerns that the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon is on an “ambitious, aggressive schedule which likely is unrealistic given the resources available for execution.” ASAP cautioned NASA not to “allow unrealistic schedules and constrained budgets to dictate decisions that jeopardize safety and affect mission performance.”

In summary, Sanders praised NASA’s management and workforce, but noted that the agency needs careful and deliberate planning to succeed.

“I will reemphasize that NASA is embarked on an ambitious and impressive portfolio of space exploration endeavors. The agency has a talented and capable management and technical workforce to meet the challenges, but it will still take very careful and deliberate planning and integration at all levels, accompanied by realistic schedules and adequate resources, to achieve the desired goals.” – ASAP Chair Patricia Sanders





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