NASA Wants “Seamless” Transition to Whatever Comes Next After ISS

NASA Wants “Seamless” Transition to Whatever Comes Next After ISS

NASA wants a “seamless” transition from the International Space Station (ISS) to whatever comes next in low Earth orbit (LEO).  An internal NASA document explains that the proposal to end direct government support for ISS in 2025 does not imply it will be deorbited then, but a goal to move to a new model where NASA is one customer of a commercial LEO enterprise.  The FY2019 budget request that will be submitted to Congress tomorrow will include funding to help commercial alternatives be ready in time, perhaps using parts of the ISS.  Congressional opposition to the idea is already building, however.

The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act signed into law in March 2017 required NASA to submit an ISS Transition Report by December 1, 2017.  NASA did not meet that deadline.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in December that he delayed the report because of pending decisions in the Trump Administration, explaining there was little point in submitting a report in December that would have to be updated weeks later.

Those decisions are coming to light as President Trump gets ready to submit his FY2019 budget request to Congress.

An internal NASA document highlighting the key points of what will be in the ISS Transition Report was reviewed by  The Transition Report itself will be submitted this spring.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

The NASA document spells out in general terms what NASA needs in LEO to support its future human spaceflight program — an orbiting platform to conduct research to mitigate human health risks and serve as a technology test-bed.

The goal, however, is to transition to a new model where NASA is only one customer of a non-governmental LEO “human space flight enterprise.”

The budget request will propose ending NASA funding for ISS in 2025, but that does not imply that the ISS will be deorbited then, the document asserts.  It is not specific about what will happen, but “industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”

The request will include $150 million in FY2019 with a promise of additional funding in future years “to enable the development and maturation of commercial entities and capabilities which will ensure successors to ISS — potentially including elements of the ISS — are operational when they are needed.”

The document offers a list of options for the post-ISS future and key considerations in assessing them.  It also notes “national policy questions” that must be taken into account including “the importance of an ongoing U.S. human presence in LEO, the foreign policy value of international collaboration on space exploration, and the role of the U.S. Government in that ongoing presence.”

NASA is consulting with its international partners on the transition and welcomes input from the commercial sector.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee’s Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, made clear his opposition to the idea of ending NASA funding for ISS in 2025 during  a speech to the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation conference last week.  “If numbskulls at [the Office of Management and Budget] persist in putting out such statements I would note that those statements are directly contrary to federal statute” because the 2017 authorization Act directed NASA to study extending ISS to 2028 “or even 2030.”  “As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can do — canceling a program after billions of  investment when there is serious usable life ahead.  … We should use that asset as long as it is technologically feasible and cost effective to do so. …  As long as I’m chairman of  the science and space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong and bipartisan support in the United States Congress.”

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the full committee and an ardent ISS supporter already warned the Administration it would have “a fight on its hands” if that proposal is sent to Congress.

ISS builds on a long history of space stations that have orbited the Earth since 1971.  The Soviet Union successfully launched four first generation space stations that had one docking port (Salyut 1, 3, 4, and 5), two second generation stations (Salyut 6 and 7) that had two docking ports allowing long duration missions as resupply ships and replacement crews could come and go, and one third-generation multi-modular station (Mir) that hosted multiple long duration crews during its 15-year (1986-2001) lifetime, including seven that included U.S. astronauts and 11 visits by the U.S. space shuttle.  Mir was permanently occupied by rotating crews for 10 of its 15 years.  The United States launched its first space station, Skylab, in 1973.  It hosted three short-duration (by today’s standards) crews in 1973-1974.

President Ronald Reagan directs NASA to build a space station with international partners in his State of the Union address, Jan. 25, 1984. Screengrab. Video courtesy of Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. []
President Ronald Reagan initiated what is now known as ISS in his 1984 State of the Union address.  Europe, Canada and Japan quickly joined as partners.  After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia joined in 1993.  ISS is composed of many modules and other hardware elements (e.g., solar arrays).  The first piece was launched in 1998; the last in 2010.  (Russian plans to launch an additional science module have been repeatedly delayed, but are still on the books.)  The ISS has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on 4-6 month shifts since November 2000.

The U.S. investment in ISS through the end of the construction phase in 2010 is variously listed as $60-100 billion, depending in part on how costs for the 40 space shuttle launches are calculated (average costs or marginal costs).  Except for Russia, there is no exchange of funds among the partners.  NASA currently spends approximately $4 billion per year on ISS.

NASA established public-private partnerships to develop vehicles to resupply the ISS with cargo (“commercial cargo”) and to ferry crews back and forth (“commercial crew”) after the George W. Bush Administration decided to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed.  The last shuttle flight was in 2011.

The commercial cargo program is operational.  Commercial crew test flights are expected to take place this year, but the vehicles are not expected to be certified for operational use until the end of 2019 or 2020.  NASA currently pays Russia to take crews back and forth.  The contract for those flights ends in 2019.  NASA is brainstorming options for how to proceed if the commercial crew vehicles are not ready before that contract ends.

The document cites the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs as examples of how it already has helped enable a commercial LEO space economy.

The bottom line is that it “is the intent of NASA and the Administration to maintain seamless access to a human platform in LEO that meets NASA’s and the nation’s goals.”

As it says, one consideration is the “importance of an ongoing U.S. presence in LEO.”  That includes what other countries will have a presence there.  China, for example.

China launched its first space station, Tiangong-1, in 2011 and its second, Tiangong-2, in 2016.   Tiangong-1 will reenter Earth’s atmosphere in a few weeks.  Tiangong-2 is still in orbit, but no further crew visits are anticipated.  They are very modest compared even to early Soviet and U.S. space stations, never mind ISS, but they are only first steps.  China plans to launch a three-module 60 MT station by the early 2020s.

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