Senate Committee Told U.S. Space Leadership Requires Continued Presence in Low Earth Orbit

Senate Committee Told U.S. Space Leadership Requires Continued Presence in Low Earth Orbit

Witnesses at a Senate hearing on international collaboration and competition in space today stressed that a continued human U.S. presence in low Earth orbit is key to international leadership in space. The International Space Station is more than 20 years old and Congress and NASA continue to debate what should replace it and when. The Senate passed a new NASA authorization bill earlier this year that begins to address it, but Senators expressed frustration that action is stalled in the House.

The hearing before the Space and Science Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee covered many issues including the need to accelerate action on space situational awareness and space traffic management and resolve the Artemis Human Landing System (HLS) debate, but the future of U.S. presence in low Earth orbit was a major theme.

Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), right, and Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), left, Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, of the Space and Science Subcommittee, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, at Octobeer 21, 2021 hearing on international collaboration and competition in space. Screengrab.

Although the hearing was subtitled “Oversight of NASA’s Role and Programs,” no NASA witnesses were at the table. Instead there were two former NASA officials, a representative from Axiom Space, and the chair of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel.

The International Space Station (ISS) is widely regarded as an engineering marvel and a testament to international cooperation, even if some question whether it was a worthwhile expenditure in terms of return on investment. Cost estimates for ISS vary widely, depending in large part on how costs for the 36 space shuttle missions needed to assemble it are calculated and whether money spent by the non-U.S. partners are included, but $100 billion is an oft-used figure. That does not include annual operating expenditures since the last shuttle mission in 2011.

Initiated by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA) joined the program in the late 1980s. Russia became a partner in 1993. The group has stayed together through thick and thin even after the dramatic geopolitical changes when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

Former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testiifying to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. October 21, 2021. Screengrab.

But ISS is getting old. Crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules have lived there for more than 20 years, cracks have developed in one of the Russian modules, and, as former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today, the outside has been “pelted by debris.”

The most recent NASA Authorization Act, enacted in 2017, commits the United States to supporting the space station “through at least 2024.”

While there is widespread expectation that U.S. support for the ISS will be extended to 2030, Bridenstine pushed back on the notion that it could last longer than that and “I would also tell you that there’s no guarantee we’re going to make it to 2030.”

Nonetheless, Mike Gold told the committee that extending it in law to 2030 would “send a clear and unequivocal message” to partners and rivals alike that the United States “will remain a leader” in low Earth orbit. Gold held several positions at NASA when Bridenstine was Administrator including Associate Administrator for Space Policy and Partnerships and led development of the Artemis Accords. He returned to the private sector and joined Redwire Space in April. Redwire acquired Made-in-Space, which conducts additive manufacturing demonstrations on the ISS.

The Senate passed a new NASA authorization bill in June that would extend ISS to 2030, but Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the full committee, spent most of her time today railing against the House for not acting on the bill. She also questioned whether NASA really wants an authorization bill or is content with just getting money through appropriations without policy direction and oversight by her committee. If it wanted a bill, she argued, it would help resolve the issues between the Senate and the House that are preventing progress.

“It’s been since 2017 since we’ve actually had an authorizing bill so I sometimes feel like NASA wants to have the money without the authorization. That is, that it works not to resolve the conflicts that we have with members [of the House], that basically it just realizes as long as you can just get the dollars it’s okay. Well, that’s not okay.” — Sen. Maria Cantwell

A NASA spokesperson later pointed to a June statement from NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former Senator and colleague of Cantwell’s, applauding passage of the Senate bill and saying he looked forward to working with the House “to see it passed into law.”

Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) who chairs the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee often says he wants to get a NASA authorization bill done, but there has been no action by the committee, at least in public.

Parallel to the question of how long ISS should operate is what should replace it. NASA has made clear for years that it does not want to build another space station at government expense. It wants to be one of many customers for privately built and operated commercial space stations in low Earth orbit (LEO), where ISS is located. The agency has struggled to win congressional support for its “commercial LEO” effort, however. Congress appropriated just $15 million of the $150 million requested for FY2020 and $17 million of the $150 million requested for FY2021. Congress has repeatedly said that NASA was not providing sufficient justification for the expenditure or a roadmap for how to execute a transition from ISS to whatever comes next.

The International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Some progress apparently has been made recently, though. The Senate Appropriations Committee just approved the full FY2022 request of $101 million saying NASA had “finally” provided that information, although House appropriators allocated just $45 million in its version of the bill

Bridenstine said even if Congress appropriated the $101 million, it is not enough. The Senate Appropriations action is “fantastic … but that’s still not enough, to be honest, we need more” to ensure there is no gap between the end of ISS and when commercial space stations are ready.

He and others are determined to avoid another situation like the 9-year gap between the end of the space shuttle program and the availability of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon when the United States was dependent on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS. A prime motivation is to not cede leadership in LEO to China, which just sent a second crew to its new space station.

Mary Lynne Dittmar, Executive Vice President for Government Affairs at Axiom Space, agreed. Axiom is building a module that will attach to an ISS docking port in 2024 and then separate in 2028 to become a free-flying commercial space station. It is also sending private astronauts to the ISS, with the first flight scheduled for February 2022. “I’m alarmed by what I see is the potential for a gap” that would give China the advantage. “I think it’s really important to foot stomp that U.S. presence in low Earth orbit is expected in perpetuity, that it is the policy of the United States that we will continue to use it through whatever means. Low Earth orbit is our foothold going out into outer space.”

Patricia Sanders, chair, NASA Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, testifying to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, October 21, 2021. Screengrab.

Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) chair Patricia Sanders added that a “persistent presence” in LEO is also important from the standpoint of risk reduction for future exploration.

“We look at it from the panel’s perspective on the risk reduction that it provides for further exploration. If you don’t have persistent presence, you don’t understand the effects of microgravity and the environment on human physiology, and … you’re going to have greater risk when you go further away. … There needs to be a good transition period, handoff to whatever follows ISS.” — Patricia Sanders

In the end, it boils down to money. NASA spends $3-4 billion of its $23-24 billion annual budget operating the ISS, a drain on its ability to push forward in human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars. That is one of the drivers in its shift to Public-Private Partnerships for everything from resupplying the ISS with cargo and crews to the commercial LEO effort to the Artemis Moon/Mars program itself. If NASA is to keep ISS operating until 2030, where will it get the funds for commercial LEO and Artemis?

Last year NASA picked Dittmar’s Axiom Space for a $140 million contract to add its module to the ISS as a first step towards a commercial “destination” in LEO, but she said today the $101 million FY2022 request for commercial LEO and how NASA plans to allocate it “does not meet the commitment to Axiom for 2022.” Axiom is paying to develop, launch and operate the module, but Dittmar told that the NASA funding is for “data deliverables and insight to support integration” into ISS and “demonstration of commercial capabilities.”

Illustration of Axiom Station. Credit: Axiom Space.

That $101 million is also intended to fund the agency’s Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) initiative through which it plans to award up to a total of $400 million to as many as four companies for development of private space stations separate from the Axiom award.

Nanoracks, Lockheed Martin and Voyager Holdings just announced today they are partnering on a commercial space station concept, Starlab. Sierra Space has been developing its LIFE Habitat for some time and Blue Origin also reportedly is interested. How far any of them would get without some measure of government support is the issue.

Congress and the Administration will have to decide just how important it is to ensure there is no period of time when NASA might have to rely on China’s space station for any of its essential LEO activities as it was dependent on Russia for access to ISS for almost a decade.

Time is running out. Bridenstine, a former Congressman as well as former NASA Administrator, put it bluntly today.

“When we think about how long it takes to develop a [commercial] space station, especially when it’s not been done before, I don’t know how long — I’m not going to give you an answer on the date. But here’s what I think the Senate should do. The Senate should absolutely declare that NASA needs to tell it what is the objective to have that new space station and then the Senate needs to fund the requirements to achieve that.” — Jim Bridenstine

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