Will the ISS continue beyond 2024?
Buried in the middle of his Feb. 12, 2018, statement regarding NASA’s proposed 2019 FY budget, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a bit of a shock wave through the space community with an announcement that could see the fate of the International Space Station forever altered.
“…this budget proposes for NASA to ramp up efforts to transition low-Earth activities to the commercial sector, and end direct federal government support of the ISS in 2025 and begin relying on commercial partners for our low-Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements.”
More simply stated, NASA would discontinue its funding of the Space Station after 2024, about the same time that a potential second Trump administration would leave office. How much funding is that? According to NASA’s 764-page FY 2019 Budget Proposal, the ISS Program line item comes in at approximately $1.46 billion, of which $1.1 billion is listed as being “Systems Operations and Maintenance” and the remainder is “ISS Research.” That $1.46 billion rounds out to about 7 percent of the total NASA budget for the year, which is estimated at being some $19.9 billion.
The plan does not include estimates for the 2025 FY, so there are no direct financial indications of how that $1.46 billion budget item might be diverted. The Budget does, however, provide some additional insight (see page # LSO-2, or page 158 of the entire document):
“The Budget proposes to centralize space access efforts in a new Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and Spaceflight Operations Account, enabling NASA to better plan both government and commercial access to space, and laying the foundation to support future commercial operations in LEO. These activities support existing and future space operations, commercialization, and space and flight support capabilities for NASA and non-NASA missions.”
The document expounds upon what these non-NASA missions referred to are as follows:
“The new Commercial LEO Development theme and program will fund NASA’s efforts to assist commercial space industry in developing a long-term, sustained commercial LEO presence. NASA’s efforts will focus on enabling, developing, and deploying commercial platforms. The Budget proposes to end direct U.S. financial support for the International Space Station(ISS)in 2025, after which NASA would rely on commercial partners for its LEO research and technology demonstration requirements. To kick off the new program’s activities, NASA plans to request formal proposals from industry for future platforms and capabilities. We are expecting to see market analysis and business plans as part of these proposals.”
The emerging private space industry has greatly benefited from NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Resupply Programs. It can be argued that SpaceX, the frontrunner of the nascent NewSpace movement would have accomplished much less without the U.S. space agency as its anchor customer. What impact the uncertain future of the ISS would have on Boeing, SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corporation, all of whom are participating in contracts involving NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and / or Commercial Resupply Services contracts, is as yet unknown.
While research initiatives such as the Robonaut 2 technology demonstrator have stalled in recent years, efforts to support private space firms have blossomed from the support NASA has provided to cede delivery of cargo and astronauts to the outpost.
“While initiating planning to transition LEO human spaceflight operations to commercial partners in 2025, NASA will continue existing operations of the ISS with expanded partnerships on the station. Over the next seven years, these partnerships– international and commercial– will help ensure continued human presence in LEO and full utilization of ISS for conducting research and technology development.”
About $150 million annually has been added to the budget to facilitate Commercial LEO development, this could increase to $225 million for FY 2023. In the meantime, ISS spending is projected to continue at about the $1.4 billion level through FY 2023.
Other elements in NASA’s FY 2019 Budget that pertain to the ISS:
- “A primary purpose of the Commercial LEO Development program is to ensure that the United States has access to an orbital platform on which to conduct research and develop new technologies.
- The end goal is where NASA is one of many customers of a commercial market in LEO.
- The new Commercial LEO Development program will leverage the experience NASA and its private sector partners have with the construction, deployment, operations, and utilization of orbital platforms in order to ensure that the United States will continue to have access to LEO in the mid-2020s and beyond.
- To achieve the Commercial LEO Development program’s goals, its first activity will be to conduct an open competition for public and privately funded module(s) and/or platform(s) attached to the ISS or free-flying in LEO in FY 2018. NASA expects to make these awards in FY 2019.”
Given this announcement, it is likely that the major space contractors are now busy forming the typical internal and joint venture task forces to develop their proposals and ensure they are involved with this new Commercial LEO strategy.
Some of these companies have already been working on their own LEO habitat and laboratory concepts. Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is developing a fully autonomous stand-alone space station called the B330, it should be able to provide some 330 cubic meters of internal volume (equivalent to an 85’ by 85’ room with a 15 foot ceiling) and housing up to a crew of six.
The ISS is not, however, owned by the NASA or the United States exclusively. Rather, it is operated under the jurisdiction of a complex set of treaties and agreements signed by the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and participating countries of the European Space Agency (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).
According to NASA’s Stephanie Schierholz, “To ensure a smooth transition of the space station to a model where NASA is one of many customers, the agency will consult with stakeholders, including international and industry partners, to evolve operations from NASA-led to a commercial enterprise.”
Some have speculated that NASA’s withdrawal from direct ISS funding by 2025 may result in abandoning or de-orbiting the orbiting lab, some of whose components will be approaching the end of their 30-year design life beginning in 2028. Not so, says Schierholz, who notes, “The decision to end direct federal support for the space station does not imply the platform itself would be deorbited at that time. It is possible industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform. Life extension studies have been conducted to validate the ISS hardware is viable through at least 2028, when the oldest ISS components will have been in orbit for 30 years. Today the station’s orbit is maintained with a combination of the ISS thrusters and Russian Progress vehicles.”
The first components of the International Space Station were launched to orbit starting in November of 1998. The first component to be sent to low-Earth orbit was the Russian Zarya module via a Proton rocket. Two weeks later, the U.S. Space Agency sent the Unity Module up using Space Shuttle Endeavour on STS-88.
However with the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia during the STS-107 mission in 2003, the construction of the space station was stalled for several years while the agency worked to develop methods to make traveling on the orbiter fleet more safe. The station was mostly completed in mid 2011, with some of the international partners planning on sending more modules, which include the Nauka module with the European Robotic Arm, the Uzlovoy Module, as well as a duo of power modules called NEM-1 and NEM-2 to the station.
Given the amount of organizations that are currently involved with operations at the ISS, and the investment that has already been made in the outpost to date, it is likely that the station will continue orbiting past 2024. However, the organizational structure that governs how the ISS is managed will change.
Jim Siegel comes from a business and engineering background, as well as a journalistic one. He has a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, an MBA from the University of Michigan, and executive certificates from Northwestern University and Duke University. Jim got interested in journalism in 2002. As a resident of Celebration, FL, Disney’s planned community outside Orlando, he has written and performed photography extensively for the Celebration Independent and the Celebration News. He has also written for the Detroit News, the Indianapolis Star, and the Northwest Indiana Times (where he started his newspaper career at age 11 as a paperboy). Jim is well known around Celebration for his photography, and he recently published a book of his favorite Celebration scenes. Jim has covered the Kennedy Space Center since 2006. His experience has brought a unique perspective to his coverage of first, the space shuttle Program, and now the post-shuttle era, as US space exploration accelerates its dependence on commercial companies. He specializes in converting the often highly technical aspects of the space program into contexts that can be understood and appreciated by average Americans.