Got Ideas for an Aging Space Station? NASA Wants to Hear Them

(Bloomberg) -- For 18 years, the International Space Station, the orbiting zenith of global scientific cooperation, has hosted a continuous human presence and thousands of science experiments in its microgravity environment. But the $100 billion laboratory won’t last forever and President Donald Trump’s proposal to withdraw federal funding in 2025 has jolted a discussion about its future.

The idea of ending the U.S. taxpayer’s role—the station costs more than $3 billion annually in a partnership with Russia, Europe, Canada and Japan—has stirred congressional opposition. It also raises a perplexing question: Who might run the place if the U.S. government doesn’t?

The Trump administration is betting on private enterprise to take over, freeing up billions to spend on a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a planned outpost designed to return U.S. astronauts to the moon in the 2020s and to Mars the following decade.

Got Ideas for an Aging Space Station? NASA Wants to Hear Them

“I do believe there’s an opportunity for a commercial consortium to manage it and I believe that if we can make that transition then the money that we’re currently spending on the ISS can go toward the Gateway and get us to the surface of the moon,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said last month in an interview with Bloomberg News. 

In his budget request, Trump also sought $150 million from Congress to promote new commercial developments in space. This plan has an array of doubters, who don’t see low earth orbit as commercially viable by 2025.

NASA’s Inspector General, Paul Martin, is one such skeptic. “We question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies will be able to develop a self-sustaining and profit-making business independent of significant federal funding within the next six years,” Martin wrote in a July 30 report about the station’s management, reiterating comments he made before Congress in May.

NASA will confront “significant challenges” in trying to get companies interested in taking over an “extremely costly and complex enterprise,” especially as it creeps toward its planned retirement in 2028, the Inspector General said.

Bridenstine rebutted the naysayers. “That’s seven years [away], and there’s a lot of time for development between now and then,” he said.

Trump’s proposal has also catalyzed conversations in Washington about when the platform should be shut down. In 2014, Congress voted to extend ISS operations until September 2024, giving the lab an additional four years beyond its initial closing date.

For Trump and Bridenstine, the issue is money—every dollar the ISS gets after 2024 is a dollar that NASA won’t have for its Martian ambitions, absent dramatic new funds from Congress.

Yet the space station remains critical for NASA’s eventual missions to Mars, hosting research into the human health risks and technology needed for future deep space exploration missions. The agency has conceded that it won’t finish all of its planned research by the end of 2024.

Some lawmakers are angling for another extension given that the station’s primary contractor, Boeing Co., has certified the platform as operationally sound until at least 2028. On July 26, three Senators—Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Democrats Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Bill Nelson of Florida—introduced a bill to keep the ISS operating until 2030.

“It would be foolish to waste that investment, to cut it short, to invent an arbitrary deadline like 2025 and say, ‘Never mind that we had additional good, productive use out of it,’” Cruz said this summer at a hearing he convened on the station’s future.

Got Ideas for an Aging Space Station? NASA Wants to Hear Them

International partners contribute 23 percent of the ISS’s annual operating cost. Of that, operations and maintenance total about $1.1 billion. Boeing, for its part, says it has shaved 30 percent off the operations bill since 2008. The company has a $1.2 billion contract for ISS work through September 2020. 

“You can save $100 million here or $100 million there but it’s not dramatic,” said Michael Suffredini, a former NASA engineer who managed the space station for 13 years. “It’s the transportation cost” to and from the ISS that accounts for most of its expense.

One of the critical unanswered questions is among those NASA itself posed in a March 2018 report about how to “transition” the space station to a commercial future: Will industry be able to create “self-sustaining business cases” to operate in low-earth orbit?

Probably not.

“We don’t lack capacity for commercial opportunities with the ISS, but the likelihood that those opportunities can fund the entire ISS by 2025 is very low,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing’s space and launch division, testified in June at a Senate subcommittee hearing on the ISS.

If a company were to step forward and assume the role of  ISS landlord, Boeing would be among the leading contenders given its long history and intimate knowledge of the space station. “We continue to look at all the options and what makes sense” given NASA’s plans to transition the ISS to a commercial future, Boeing spokesman Steven Siceloff said. “We’re also working on the utilization side of the ISS to understand and foster the commercial market.”

Even if NASA found a commercial partner, a robust financial infusion from the government would almost certainly be required to make the station viable. “And if you have that [guarantee] how do you not eliminate and elbow out private investments” in other projects aimed at creating a truly commercial space market, asked Jeff Manber, chief executive of NanoRacks LLC, which offers hardware and services for conducting research aboard the space station.

“They need to make sure they set criteria in place so this subsidized entity does not end up being able to take business away from the truly commercial guys in the future,” said Suffredini, founder and CEO of Axiom Space, which wants to be one of those guys with its plans for a private space station and luxury resort.

Got Ideas for an Aging Space Station? NASA Wants to Hear Them

The space station is already a unique research-and-development environment for a variety of companies.

A Massachusetts-based biotech startup called Angiex Inc. plans to begin researching its vascular-targeted cancer therapy on the ISS this summer. Delta Faucet Co. plans to start testing water flows and droplet formation in microgravity this November aboard the space station with the hope of reducing water consumption while still providing a satisfying shower. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Procter & Gamble Co., and Merck & Co., have all used the station for research, including Merck’s use of microgravity last year to investigate new manufacturing techniques for its cancer drug Keytruda.

Such companies need stability and a firm time frame before they’re ready to commit to using the station for research, Cynthia Bouthot, director of commercial innovation and sponsored programs for CASIS, which runs the laboratory, said at the June hearing. “They’re not looking at a one-shot deal, they’re looking at a research roadmap, especially when we’re talking about our pharmaceutical companies that are doing work,” she said.

Regardless of the space station’s eventual fate, those at NASA, Congress and private industry are in near-unanimous agreement that the United States needs a continued research platform in low-earth orbit. Says Suffredini: “We don’t want to lose ISS before there’s a replacement available of some sort, commercial or otherwise.”

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