OPINION: Ending ISS too soon would be an Apollo-sized mistake

The ISS as seen from the final departing Space Shuttle in 2011, STS-135.
Photo Credit: NASA

It appears the Trump administration may look to end support for the International Space Station by 2025. This proposal, if approved by Congress, would be a huge mistake similar to that of ending the Apollo program in 1972.

First reported by The Verge’s Loren Grush, a draft budget proposal calls for ending U.S. funding for the ISS by 2025 to free up some $3 billion to $4 billion in the budget for the Trump administration’s plan to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon. The goal would be to transition low-Earth orbit activities to private industry.

Official details won’t emerge until at least Feb. 12, 2018, when the White House’s final Fiscal Year 2019 budget proposal is slated to be released. However if this “transition” movie sounds familiar, its because it has been seen it before—multiple times—and it has never had a happy ending.

MIND THE GAP


The most recent of these “transitions” came in 2011 with the retirement of the Space Shuttle’s with no follow-up program ready. The two that were designed to ultimately be its successors, SLS/Orion and the Commercial Crew Program, are years behind schedule. They were slated to be operational in 2017 and 2015 respectively. Neither program has yet to put U.S. astronauts into space resulting in the longest independent space access gap in U.S. history—6.5 years and counting.

SLS/Orion aren’t expected to put humans into space until 2023 while NASA’s commercial crew partners, SpaceX and Boeing, aren’t expected to send crews into space until 2019 at the earliest. This isn’t because of incompetence; it is partially because of funding levels and that, well, space is hard. There is no evidence to suggest significant delays won’t be incurred in getting commercial space stations in low-Earth orbit to replace ISS, let alone a deep space gateway (the U.S. space agency’s proposal to put a space station in cislunar space), by 2025.

While there is a hope that the International Space Station could one day be operated at least partially commercially, there is no consensus on how that would be done or if commercial industry could sustain it alone, let alone if they could afford it. The only example of a commercial entity taking control of a space station came in 1999 with MirCorp. It was able to come up with money for a single mission before the model fell apart. Mir was just too old and expensive.

While the ISS will also someday be too old and expensive to maintain, Boeing engineers have suggested the outpost could operate without significant repair/upgrade through 2028.

Several companies, such as Bigelow Aerospace and Axiom Space, are already talking about using the ISS as a construction platform to start assembling their own stations. But like all spaceflight endeavors, delays are part of the game and banking on at least one being ready by 2025 would be risky.

Even Russia is working to do a proper transition. It too wants use the ISS as a construction base for its next space station (although if faces continual delays) and a test platform for its Soyuz crew capsule replacement called Federation. Roscosmos plans on fly Federation while phasing out Soyuz. The same must be done for ISS.

US LEADERSHIP IN SPACE


Moreover, there is the matter of leadership. The current administration has talked a lot about the importance of leadership, but what would signalling the premature end of the ISS say about American leadership in space?

One of the biggest accomplishments the ISS program is the bringing together of 16 countries over five major space agencies to build the most complex engineering project in the history of spaceflight. If the U.S. signals its interest in continuing the program is waning, that could mean other countries start to move beyond it as well.

While the hope is to transition these partnerships to a cislunar deep space gateway, as stated before, the likelihood of that getting off the ground, let alone human tended by or before 2025 is remote. ISS partner nations could move on and potentially join with the Chinese space station project, which is the only space station planned to be operational in the near-term, potentially as early as 2019. Should China open its outpost up to international and commercial partners, it would be yet another blow for U.S. leadership in space.

Additionally, many companies have their near-term business models anchored to the ISS. Take NanoRacks, for example. It sells space on commercial cargo spacecraft to send CubeSats on behalf of business, governments and educational institutions to the ISS to be deployed. The company is even building a private airlock to be attached to the outpost. Their business is booming, but without any alternatives (save for maybe a Chinese space station), they could face significant cutbacks in revenue.

THE PREEMINENT ORBITAL RESEARCH FACILITY


The whole point of the ISS is to perform scientific research in a microgravity environment. The human-tended outpost is beginning to hit its stride with crews performing hundreds of experiments during each expedition, providing invaluable data for diseases on Earth, materials science, physics, and even human spaceflight research.

Designated as a U.S. national laboratory, some research is being organized by the Center for Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), a non-government organization selected to manage the research portion of the outpost.

CASIS promotes and brokers research ranging from life sciences, physical sciences, remote sensing, technology development and much more. It also provides seed money, via funding from the U.S. government, for research and development. According to its website, the organization has selected more than 200 ISS research projects since 2011 to advance the United States’ leadership in commercial space and pursue science not possible on Earth.

Without any replacement to transition to, this research will end and it could take years to reestablish the pace that companies and research facilities are currently at. According to NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in September 2017, there are entities that want to invest in the space station’s facilities, “but the payback and return requires maybe longer than the amount of time between 2017 and 2024.”

This suggests that signaling an end to the outpost by 2025 now would begin to stifle investment in the complex. Why start designing something to go to a place for only a couple years at best? The Commercial Crew Program will have similar issues it will have to face with only five or six years of operations before the potential end of the complex.

Additionally, the space station is coming up on a very important milestone. On Nov. 2, 2020, the program is expected to celebrate 20 years of continual human presence in space. That is something that should not be given up and should be built on. The experience of operating and maintaining (both ground-based and on-orbit) a human-tended facility 24/7 for decades cannot be lost if humanity is to expand beyond LEO to the Moon and Mars.

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