NASA inspector general appears to buttress senatorial concerns. At one point on Wednesday afternoon, US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) turned to his counterpart from Florida, Democrat Bill Nelson, and spoke of their mutual preference for continuing federal funding for the International Space Station throughout the 2020s. " Senator Nelson and I are on exactly the same page," Cruz said. "Why couldn't we agree on a lot of other pages?" Nelson quipped in reply. The exchange came during a hearing of the Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which Cruz chairs, on the topic of "Examining the Future of the International Space Station: Administration Perspectives." More specifically, the Trump administration has said it will end NASA's direct support for the International Space Station in 2025. Wednesday's hearing delivered a bipartisan response from the Senate in which key members vigorously oppose this plan. NASA would like to transition from spending $3 to $4 billion a year on ISS operations in low Earth orbit to a sustainable commercial marketplace where NASA is one of many customers. This means that a private entity could take over control of the space station (and pay the lion's share of the bills) or several smaller commercial stations could fulfill the role of providing orbital way stations. Ultimately, almost everyone in the aerospace community would like to see this happen, but there is broad disagreement on how best to make this transition and how quickly it can realistically occur. The senators at Wednesday's hearing did not believe 2025, a timeline pushed by Vice President Mike Pence, was a realistic date for such a transition. (NASA, a White House agency, must advocate for the president's plan even if many there don't support it). During his questioning, Cruz did not hide his parochial concerns. He asked NASA's William Gerstenmaier, the agency's chief of human exploration, how the end of the station would affect Johnson Space Center in Houston. This center manages the International Space Station and houses the cadre of flight controllers who monitor the vehicle's health and keep it flying. In reality, the administration's decision would probably be devastating, but Gerstenmaier asserted that maybe commercial interests would help the space center along. While certainly both Cruz and Nelson are seeking to protect jobs in Texas and Florida, the panel's other witness offered potent testimony that undercuts the administration's plan. "Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency's current plan," said Paul Martin, NASA's inspector general. In both his testimony and in response to questions, Martin raised concerns about NASA's International Space Station Transition Plan, which the agency publicly released early this year. The plan made "overly optimistic" assumptions about the interest of private companies in doing business in low Earth orbit and about the costs of operating there, he said. For example, Martin noted that one study NASA relied on estimated the cost of sending a human into orbit and back in 2025 would be $20 million. This seems far too low, given that the present cost of a Soyuz seat to the station is $84 million. While commercial crew has the potential to reduce this cost, neither Boeing nor SpaceX is likely to bring this cost down soon. Both Cruz and Nelson hammered the White House Office of Management and Budget as the unseen hand behind the 2025 date, saying it was forcing the premature end of yet another NASA program. No one from the White House budget office was on the panel to defend it. However, if someone were, they probably would have said that with several commercial companies expressing an interest in low Earth orbit stations, it's prudent to at least study how quickly they can get into service and allow NASA to focus its human exploration program on deep space.
The Trump Administrations plan to hand the International Space Station off to the private sector by 2025 probably wont work, says a government auditor. Its unlikely that any commercial companies will be able to take on the enormous costs of operating the ISS within the next six years, the auditor said. NASAs inspector general, Paul Martin, laid out his concerns over the space stations transition during a Senate space subcommittee hearing May 16th, helmed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). During his testimony, Martin said that theres just no sufficient business case for space companies to take on the ISSs yearly operations costs, which are expected to reach $1.2 billion in 2024. The industries that would need the ISS, such as space tourism or space research and development, havent panned out yet, he noted. Plus, the private space industry hasnt been very enthusiastic about using the ISS either — for research or for profit. Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agencys current plans, Martin said at the hearing. President Trumps budget request in February called for NASA to end direct federal funding for the ISS by 2025 as a way to free up funds for the space agencys future projects. Currently, the space station costs NASA at least $3 to $4 billion each year to operate, and the administration wants to redirect that money to other things, such as developing new hardware to get back to the Moon. But rather than get rid of the ISS altogether, NASA proposed the idea of commercial companies taking over the station. Companies could operate the whole thing or parts of it. Or they could put up their own habitats instead. However, Martin said today that transitioning the ISS to the private sector probably wouldnt save NASA that much money, anyway. Thats because the space agency would still continue to send astronauts and cargo to and from the privatized space station (or any other commercial habitat thats in low Earth orbit). And transportation is expensive. For instance, NASA has allocated $1.7 billion on transporting astronauts and supplies to the ISS in fiscal year 2018. Any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up $3 to $4 billion beginning in 2025... is wishful thinking, Martin said. Given all of these issues, Martin said NASA has an obvious alternative: extend funding of the ISS beyond 2024 — the year that the programs budget is currently slated to end. Martin said his office found that many of NASAs research goals for the station, such as studying space health risks and testing out new technologies, wont be completed by then anyway; an extension would give the agency more time to get all these studies done. And Boeing, which built most of the ISS, maintains that most of the vehicle can last up until 2028, without major maintenance needed. An extension is something that both Cruz and Nelson adamantly support. The two senators, both of whom represent states with major NASA centers that oversee the ISS, were vocal about stopping the administrations plans. Let me be clear: as long as Im chairman of this subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong support — strong bipartisan support — in the United States Congress, Cruz said in his opening statement. Nelson also said the administrations proposal to end ISS funding is dead on arrival, arguing that the ISS is a critical platform needed for astronaut training and technology development. If this plan to prematurely end the current ISS program moves forward, I fear that NASAs expertise in these critical areas — expertise that were going to have to have if were going to Mars with humans and safely return — that that expertise is going to be lost, said Nelson. Cruz maintained that ending the ISS program early without a suitable replacement would be a disaster for NASA. Prematurely canceling a program for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars, he said. He also argued that setting the 2025 date was an arbitrary decision not backed by science. At the hearing, the senator asked NASAs associate administrator for human exploration, William Gerstenmaier, if the date was originally proposed by NASA or the administration. It originated in the administration, Gerstenmaier replied. Extending the space station program comes with its own set of cons, though. The risk of a failure on the ISS goes up the longer it lasts in orbit, and keeping the program fully funded means NASA will continue to incur costs of $3 to $4 billion each year. Plus, the extension partially depends on NASAs international partners, such as Japan and the European Space Agency, which cover 23 percent of NASAs costs to maintain the ISS. And its unclear if they want to continue operating the space station either, according to Martin. NASAs other alternative is to get rid of the ISS altogether, by slowly taking it apart piece by piece and plunging that hardware safely into Earths atmosphere. But thats not as easy as it sounds. De-orbiting the space station will be a three-year process thats estimated to cost $950 million, according to the inspector general. So any choice that NASA picks for the future of the ISS will require a lot of planning and money. Congress is still in the process of finalizing the budget for NASA for next year, and it seems likely lawmakers will try to keep the ISS around for a lot longer. But the space agency needs to know which route the ISS program is going to take. The sooner that Congress and the administration agree on a path forward for the ISS, the better NASA will be able to plan, Martin said.