Use of ISS is, per Section 501 (a) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010, to be operated until 2020. Although since the 2010 NASA Act was written NASA has talked about extending the use of ISS beyond 2020 to as late as 2030, the decision to operate ISS beyond 2020 has not yet been made.
One factor that will have to be considered in any decision to operate ISS beyond 2020 is the station’s age. Completed in 2011, by 2020 elements of ISS are obviously aging; Zarya was lofted in 1996 with an estimated life-span of 15 years. By 2020, Zarya, lofted in 1998 with an estimated lifespan of at least 15-years, the Unity Node, and the PMA–1 will have been in orbit over 24 years; those elements launched in 2000 such as Zvezda, the P6 truss, and Quest will have been in orbit around 20 years. By 2030, those elements in particular, and ISS in general, will certainly provide an unparalleled opportunity to witness how structures age in low-Earth orbit. But concomitant with that are the costs associated with the needed maintenance to counter the wear-and-tear of low-Earth orbit.
The issue of the costs of maintaining ISS has not been invisible to the station’s international partners. There has been a rising chorus among the ISS international partners of their unwillingness to use what little human spaceflight funding they have beyond 2020 to maintain a +20 year-old low-Earth orbiting space station. Given the scarce funding picture NASA itself faces for years to come and the operating costs of ISS at just over $3 billion annually, the space agency is unlikely to be able to afford both ISS and a beyond-Earth orbit exploration program. The question of whether or not to continue ISS operations beyond 2020 or to move-on to the next phase of human space exploration to the Moon or beyond hangs like an albatross around NASA’s neck.
The tight funding conditions at NASA during the past few years have also affected the Agency’s commercial crew program. In 2010 it was assumed by many in the commercial space community that–based in funding projections by the Obama Administration of around $800 million annually for NASA’s commercial crew program, which did not pan-out–in just a few short years, certainly by 2015, commercial space companies would be transporting crews to ISS. Even if ISS were decommissioned in 2020, five years of ISS crew services–it was posited by commercial space advocates–would be plenty of time to “prime the pump” for a commercial low-Earth orbit market. But, as is so often the case in aerospace, progress didn’t happen nearly so quickly as many in the commercial space community had hoped. NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden testified late last April that, unless Congress approves the Administration’s annual appropriations requests of $821.4 million in each of FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, for a total of $3.43 billion, commercial crew will slip from its current debut in November 2017 to sometime in 2018. Others sources within NASA have indicated that, if NASA commercial crew funding remains at its current levels of $525 million annually, commercial crew flights to ISS will not begin until 2019, a year before ISS may be decommissioned. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has made clear that by not asceding to the Administration’s very generous commercial crew funding requests will make it harder for the companies competing for the Commercial Crew Program to develop solid business plans given the current schedule to phase out the ISS around 2020.
|Fiscal Year||Requested||Funded||Difference||Total Difference|
Table 1. Commercial Crew Funding History and Projection
Note: All numbers are for DDTE of commercial crew vehicles and do not include contract costs of crew transport to/from ISS. All dollar amounts are in millions.
It’s self-evident that NASA faces some very tough choices in weighing its human spaceflight future. Broadly speaking, NASA could:
- Recognize that ISS has served its purpose, decommission it in 2020, and begin its trek towards beyond low-Earth orbit exploration.
- Decommission ISS in the mid–2020’s, continue funding commercial crewed development to completion in the hopes that a commercial space market for LEO develops by the mid–2020’s, while beginning a scaled-down beyond low-Earth exploration program.
- Continue to fund commercial crew development to its completion, extend the use of, and therefore funding for, ISS into 2030 so that commercial crew has a destination, while holding-back any beyond-Earth exploration efforts, potentially causing a rift between the U.S. and its ISS partners and running the risk of the Chinese beating the US to the Moon.
- Working with commercial space companies to operate ISS as a gov’t-private sector partnership that shifts ISS funding from government to the commercial sector over a 5-year period between 2015 to 2020.
|Fiscal Year||Requested||Funded||Difference||Total Difference|
Table 2. ISS Funding History and Projection 1998 – 2014
Note: All numbers are total ISS, excluding operations, DDTE, etc.. All dollar amounts are in millions.
None of the above choices are ideal. Leaving ISS in 2020 would be as much a waste as not resuming our outward trek in human space exploration that stopped with the end of Apollo. Looking at the amount of money spent on ISS between 1998 and 2013 certainly doesn’t take-away from that sentiment. Yet, the fact remains that if NASA is going to fund ISS through FY 2018 at an additional $16.4 billion, or nearly 50% of what was spent in 1998 – 2012 and close to NASA’s annual funding, there is little possibility of American astronauts working beyond ISS anytime soon. Keeping ISS as a government-run facility ensures that NASA, and by extension the United States, will remain stuck in low-Earth orbit for the foreseeable future.
Table 3. ISS Funding Projection 2014 – 2018
Note: All numbers are total ISS operating. All dollar amounts are in millions.
ISS As A Beachhead For Commercial Space
One solution might be the very one that commercial space companies have curiously not proposed; operate ISS as a gov’t-private sector partnership that shifts ISS funding from government to the commercial sector over a 5-year period between 2015 to 2020.
The United States finished its construction phase of ISS just over two years ago with the May 5, 2011 flight of STS–134. The money currently being spent by NASA on ISS is to operate the station, not to construct it. If–as commercial space boosters within, and external to, NASA like to intone–low-Earth orbit space is where NASA should let commercial space flourish so that the space agency can focus on exploration on the Moon or beyond, then should not ISS be privatized just as crew access to ISS is currently undergoing? If the goal is to have private companies take over low-Earth orbit operations, then why is NASA even thinking of operating ISS beyond 2020?
It would appear then in the interests of both the commercial space sector and NASA to privatize ISS. Controlling the destination of all current commercial crew development would remove market unknowns for the commercial crew transportation industry. And successful privatization of ISS would validate what commercial space boosters have long advocated, that a market does exist for low-Earth orbit access and operations. For NASA’s part, privatizing ISS would liberate precious funding that NASA could redirect towards sending astronauts to the Moon and beyond.
Although some believe that private space stations will displace ISS before 2020, such notions are as much fairy dust as were those posited in 2002 that there would be 1,000’s of suborbital, and 100’s of orbital, commercial space flights by 2013. In today’s world, as warned NASA Administrator Bolden, the commercial space crew companies’ largest current unknown is whether they will even have ISS as a destination to transport crews to and from after 2020. Given the promises that a viable market exists for commercial space market in LEO, there is every hope that ISS could see decades of use though increased efficiencies as well as expansion that would occur under private enterprise.
The commercial space sector should be motivated to assume control over ISS because of what could happen were ISS decommissioned in 2020. Absent extending use of ISS beyond 2020, commercial crew transportation companies may only have a destination for a very short time, and the rather small contract with NASA that goes with that, after which those companies will have spaceships but no market. This would be in many ways akin to what happened in the EELV program in the early 2000’s that nearly caused Boeing and Lockheed Martin to shut-down respectively the Delta IV and Atlas V programs. Nobody wants a repeat of that financial fiasco. A commercially successful ISS means a destination exists for commercial crew operators and a beachhead from which the commercial space community can expand operations in LEO.
One requirement of the ecosystem called free enterprise is that commercial companies have the ability to attract investment capital and provide a return on that investment that is competitive with other investments in the market as a whole. If LEO access is the profit center that the commercial space companies and supporters believe, then commercial operation of ISS should be not only possible, but as claimed about LEO access, profitable. This profitability could help validate the commercial space market and encourage investors to fund commercial crew access to an amount that substantially fills-in the funding gap that NASA’s commercial crew program faces. By operating ISS at a profit, commercial space companies could gain needed experience in space operations and political clout, neither of which they have in abundance today.
There are many questions that must be addressed before asking the commercial space community to operate ISS beyond 2020. On Sept. 14, 2010, Boeing’s ISS Support Contract was extended for $1.24B. From 1995 – 2010, the previous support contract and extensions total roughly $15B. As part of Boeing’s 2010 ISS contract extension, it was to perform an assessment of the feasibility of extending the life of ISS through the end of 2028. Is that assessment in progress or completed? And if so, what are the results and how will they affect whether ISS is an appropriate facility for commercial space management?
|Contract Period||Contract Amount|
|1995 – 2008||$14,350|
|2008 – 2010||$650|
|2010 – 2015||$1,240|
|Total 1995 – 2015||$16,240|
Table 4. Boeing ISS Engineering Support Contract
Note: All dollar amounts are in millions.
It would seem to be in the interests of the commercial space sector to approached NASA about operating ISS beginning in 2015 so that ISS is fully, if not very nearly so, privatized by 2020. A privatized ISS would guarantee that this destination would remain after 2020 for the commercial crew companies. Controlling the destination of all current commercial crew development would remove market unknowns such as whether NASA will still occupy ISS beyond 2020. Further, if LEO access is the profit center that the commercial space companies and supporters claim, then commercial operation of ISS should be not only possible, but like LEO access, profitable. This tactile profitability would encourage investors who are currently unwilling to put their money in something as unproven as commercial space. Additional investor funds would accelerate other commercial space endeavors that cannot now be funded under NASA’s tight budget. In short, by profitably operating ISS in 2020 and beyond, commercial space could unleash the forces to accelerate the commercial space market in ways that are not possible today.
- NASA Authorization Act of 2010 ↩
- International Space Station Systems Engineering Case Study, 3.1.1 Zarya Control Module, page 32 ↩
- NASA Chief Repeats Warnings On Commercial Crew Delays ↩
- FY2014 Complete Budget Estimates ↩
Want to keep up-to-date with all things space? Be sure to “Like” AmericaSpace on Facebook and follow us on Twitter: @AmericaSpace