White House starts debate on when NASA should leave the space station
The Trump administration will delay the release of its budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 by a week, from Feb. 5 to Feb. 12, due to the recent three-day government shutdown. However details of the White House budget plan for NASA are starting to leak out.
According to a copy of the document seen by Ars, the White House budget builds upon statements by Vice President Mike Pence, and President Trump to refocus NASA's human exploration efforts on sending astronauts to the lunar surface. NASA's objectives will include, "Pursuing a cislunar campaign that will establish U.S. preeminence to, around, and on the Moon." As part of this goal, the agency will be directed to use public-private partnerships to provide transportation and landing services to the Moon.
The big question is how to pay for all of this, and the Trump administration's answer here is ending "direct" NASA support for the International Space Station in 2025, according to the document. At that time, NASA should transition to "commercial provision of low-Earth orbit capabilities." Presently NASA spends about $4 billion annually to staff and support the international laboratory.
The big question
When NASA will end support for the station has been a big question in the aerospace industry for awhile. NASA spent more than a decade, and nearly $100 billion, to construct the station along with international partners in Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan during the 2000s, and work was substantially completed in 2011. Since then astronauts have used the station to conduct science experiments, study the effects of long-duration spaceflight on human health, and test technologies for deep-space travel.
But at the same time, the station in low-Earth orbit consumes about 40 percent of NASA's budget for human exploration, and this funding seems like the only realistic source of money if NASA were to actually push human activity back into deep space, into the area around the Moon, or on to Mars. The question has been whether NASA should end support for the station in 2024, when its agreements with international partners expire or push it to 2028, or even later.
"Kudos to the administration for beginning the debate," said Jeff Manber, founder of Nanoracks, a company that facilitates research experiments on the station, and also is working on developing a commercial space station concept, Ixion.
There are a couple of key concerns with ending support for the space station in 2025. First all, there is the potential that NASA has no real follow-on program—that its efforts to develop a station near the Moon, or a lunar landing program won't have come to fruition. In this case, the United States would have a spaceflight "gap," with nowhere for its astronauts to go in space.
Another concern is that the space station has become a real hub for commercial activity. NASA programs have stimulated the launch industry to provide cargo and crew delivery services into low Earth orbit and, increasingly, US companies are using the station as a platform to test out business plans in space.
"Without somewhere to operate and a predictable way of getting there, operations are not possible and expansion of American free enterprise in space is stifled," the chief executive officer of Made In Space, Andrew Rush, testified in 2017. Companies like Made in Space, as well as Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada, Boeing, SpaceX, and other commercial service providers oppose an end to station support before 2028.
However, the counter argument being advanced by Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, is that at some point these "commercial" companies need to begin standing up on their own, and making profits beyond just government contracts. "He doesn't want them lining up for government programs like everyone else," one aerospace industry source told Ars.
The Trump budget reflects just the opening salvo of the debate over the space station's future, which is intertwined with almost every facet of NASA's human exploration program. The last word will come during the budget process over the coming months, when Congress formally sets spending levels for the US government.