ISS: A Future Beyond 2020?

NASA photo of International Space Station ISS posted on AmericaSpace

Will the ISS survive past 2020? Photo Credit: NASA

 

Use of ISS is, per Section 501 (a) of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010[1], 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[2], 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[3].

Fiscal Year Requested Funded Difference Total Difference
FY2011 $500 $225.0 -$275.0 -$275.0
FY2012 $ 850 $406.0 -$444.0 -$719.0
FY2013 $829.7 $525.0 -$304.7 -$1,023.7
FY2014 [4] $821.4 –– –– -$1,023.7
FY2015 $821.4 –– –– -$1,023.7
FY2016 $821.4 –– –– -$1,023.7
FY2017 $590.0 –– –– -$1,023.7
FY2018 $371.0 –– –– -$1,023.7
Total FY11-FY18 $5,604.2 $1,156.0 -$1,023.7 -$1,023.7
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.

NASA’s Options

It’s self-evident that NASA faces some very tough choices in weighing its human spaceflight future. Broadly speaking, NASA could:

  1. Recognize that ISS has served its purpose, decommission it in 2020, and begin its trek towards beyond low-Earth orbit exploration.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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
FY1998 $2,501.3 $2,304.7 -$196.6 -$196.6
FY1999 $ 2,270.0 $2,304.7 $34.7 -$161.9
FY2000 $2,482.7 $2,323.1 -$159.6 -$321.5
FY2001 $2,114.5 $2,127.8 $13.3 -$308.2
FY2002 $2,087.4 $1,720.8 -$366.6 -$674.8
FY2003 $1,492.1 $1,707.2 $215.1 -$459.7
FY2004 $1,707.1 $1,498.1 -$209.0 -$668.7
FY2005 $1,863.0 $1,676.3 -$186.7 -$855.4
FY2006 $1,856.7 $1,753.4 -$103.3 -$958.7
FY2007 $1,811.3 $1,762.6 -$48.7 -$1,007.4
FY2008 $2,238.6 $1,685.5 -$553.1 -$1,560.5
FY2009 $2,060.2 $2,060.2 $0.0 -$1,560.5
FY2010 $2,267.0 $2,317.0 $50.0 -$1,510.5
FY2011 $2,779.8 $2,713.6 -$66.2 -$1,576.7
FY2012 $2,841.5 $2,829.9 -$11.6 -$1,588.3
FY2013 $3,007.6 $2,789.9 -$217.7 -$1,806.0
FY2014 [4] $3,049.1 –– –– ––
Total FY98-FY14 $35,380.8 $33,574.8 -$1,806.0 -$1,806.0
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.

Fiscal Year Requested
FY2014 [4] $3,049.1
FY2015 $3,169.8
FY2016 $3,182.4
FY2017 $3,389.6
FY2018 $3,598.3
Total FY14-FY18 $16,389.2
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.

NASA photo of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Dragon Cape Canaveral posted on AmericaSpace

Of the four companies competing under NASA’s commercial crew and commercial cargo initiatives, only one has actually traveled to the International Space Station. SpaceX has journeyed to the orbiting laboratory three times using the duo of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

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.

Missions » ISS »

31 comments to ISS: A Future Beyond 2020?

  • Jan Messer

    Dear Sir/Ma’am:

    This is truly inspiring work you all are doing. I have been an avid fan of space farers since Yuri Gagarin & Alan Shepard first went up there.

    Of course the thing ‘they’ should do is form a commercial – government partnership. I expect it to happen shortly.

    Well, keep looking up, as Jack Horkheimer used to say.

    Sincerely,

    Janice L. Messer

  • Karol

    Jim, as an astute individual who not only has obviously put a great deal of study into this issue so as to produce this excellent evaluation, but who has his finger on the pulse of the space community inside the beltway, could you please share your opinion on the issue of do you believe after these many years of exceptional service and extensive industry-related research, there remains enough commercial research left to be done in the micro gravity of the ISS that there will be sufficient corporate participation to make the ISS self-sufficient?

  • […] Somebody should launch a Kickstarter to buy the ISS. […]

  • Jim

    Serious errors in understanding here. First a simple factual one – Zarya launched in November 1998, not 96.

    More importantly, ISS was always intended for a 30 year life. Space Station Freedom had a requirement for 30 years but it soon became apparent that we did not know how to certify a system for 30 years in space. Therefore the decision was made early on to limit the certification to 15 years and see what made sense after that with the expectation that 30 was possible.

    Likewise, Mir was certified for 5 years with annual re-certifications after that time. Mir had serious problems both because the Russian understanding of long duration flight was still being built but more so because the fall of the Soviet Union meant maintenance was not getting done.

    Finally, there are many dozens of critical technical issues for beyond LEO exploration that ISS is designed to address. It is foolish and downright stupid to throw away the perfect test vehicle in the hopes that something else will be more fun.

    • Jim,
      Sorry for the typo. It’s been corrected.
      Given that Space Station Freedom, Alpha, & ISS has been in a near constant state of flux since its inception, I think your comments, like the article, are based off of fact tempered with opinion. Your statements about how ISS is being used for BEO studies, are a good example of this. ISS is in an orbit which makes it useless for BEO efforts other than the negligible science experiments currently being conducted on ISS.
      As to the vehicle being “perfect” – within the past year alone, communication issues, coolant leaks & damage caused by a Progress docking have shown that it’s anything but “perfect.” The ISS, while an incredible achievement has numerous flaws. It appears you too have some serious errors in understanding.
      We appreciate & respect your opinion & would never resort to calling them either “foolish” or “stupid.” It’s too bad you were incapable of paying us the same courtesy.

      Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

    • Jim Hillhouse

      Jim,

      First, my apologies for adding two years onto the age of Zarya and the Unity Node. Thank you for catching my error.

      Nobody says that ISS cannot last for decades more than 2020. What the ISS int’l partners and frankly all of us should worry about is the point raised in the article–the cost of keeping the station operating safely beyond 2020. Think of it this way, what happens the day after your car’s factory warranty expires. Mir ran into problems because of a lack of money; why would ISS be any different.

      I agree that it would be foolish to throw ISS away in 2020, but equally foolish to keep our current human space flight program in its currently uninspiring mode of endlessly orbiting the earth. That’s the reason for suggesting that the commercial space companies step-up in 2015 to start learning how to operate ISS so that by 2020 this facility can remain not only a destination for commercial crew flights but a place where we can continue the very important engineering studies of structures aging in LEO.

  • Brian M

    Jim is right-your factual error of an erroneous launch date for the first elements of ISS launched in 98, not 96, and then continuing the error in the story talking about the amount of time elements will have been in orbit by 2020 is pretty surprising. If yu’d just had the year wrong you might have made an excuse that someone mistyped one digit. But when you go on to talk about the length of time, you obviously thought you had correct information, but did not. Your story has now been picked up by a variety of news distributors, including NASA, with no corrections. You folks really need to check the accuracy of the data your using.

    • Brian,

      I appreciate the heads-up. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised I made this error, but like all of us I’m only human.

      None-the-less, the two-year younger ISS will face rising maintenance costs as the 2020’s progress and those costs will add pressure to NASA’s stretched budget. The gist of the article isn’t so much about the Space Station but about its impact on our nation’s ability to do things that could inspire. Implicit in that statement is the obvious fact that endlessly circling in LEO does not inspire. Our ISS int’l partners are nudging us to get out of our rut, as we should. The question that is most pressing is whether the commercial space industry will step-up to the plate and work with NASA to get ISS privately run by 2020 or nearly so?

      • The question of economics is always the choice of alternatives. Is privately running the I.S.S. the best alternative?

        I think not and my other comment has a link that suggests why.

        $150 billion was the price of what is now somewhat equivalent to a used car with things breaking down. For 1% of that cost you can get that new car smell and 6 times the life support and much greater options for expansion including being in the right orbit using technology that is likely to have a much greater useful life. It would even increase the value of the I.S.S. by backing up each other (so rescue doesn’t necessarily mean leaving orbit.)

        • Jim Hillhouse

          Obviously, a public-private partnership would assume operational control of ISS without any upfront equity or consideration, if you are aware of what those two terms mean from an venture POV.

          NASA has a choice; explore or continue to uninspire and whither. Commercial space also has a choice; start building a revenue stream outside of NASA, and that includes 1st, 2nd, to n-th order, revenue, or whither from a lack of a destination in LEO and the associated revenue of transporting cargo/crew there.

          Your statement seems to belie letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. I don’t know where you think $1.5B is going to come from for a LEO destination. ISS is it, it’s what’s there now. If commercial space doesn’t step-up to the plate, then the LEO destination gets splashed sometime in the 2020’s.

          Commercial space is in trouble because it believed the Administration’s hyped-up funding projections. It’s time for that community to step-up and take some control over its future. Assuming the operation of ISS, the only realistic destination available for the next decade, is a first step. And a necessary one.

          • if you are aware of what those two terms mean

            See you can do snark. Jim, I know I’m not stupid. Do you know it?

            NASA and business do have choices. In this we completely agree.

            I also agree with the sentiment that splashing a working space station is short sighted, but I can tell you where the $1.5b may come from.

            I don’t see commercial space in trouble at all, except perhaps from too much government red tape. All business’ make a go of it or not. Space is really no different.

            Any business that would take over the I.S.S. has to weigh operational costs and potential profits against other alternatives.

            So where does the $1.5b come from? The same place any business gets its money: Incrementally as part of a profitable operation. They don’t spend $1.5b immediately, it’s part of a progressive operation.

            Bigelow, for example, will sell a two month stay in 55 m3 for $26m not including transportation to and from which is an additional cost. That revenue flow can begin either as operator of the I.S.S. or from a one time cost of $200m to put the first BA330 in orbit. Bigelow is a billionaire, putting several in orbit is no big deal for him, but he wants his ducks in a row first (to save a little space here: I don’t need to elaborate on that, do I?)

            Even if they do take over operation of the I.S.S. that only allows six customers at a time and they might want more than that.

            They expand from there to six linked in a ring or even more depending on market demand which they really don’t know until they build it so they can come.

            • Ken,

              Nobody will have to write a check for $150B or even $1.5B for ISS. The proposal is to create a gov’t-industry partnership with industry assuming the station’s operational obligations over a 5-year period. Commercial space’s only downside is whether, after getting the station for “free”, it can operate it on a going forward basis. Yes, it a way this is a “sweetheart” deal.

              There are no other alternatives to ISS, just “possibilities”. Think, “A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush”. Why?

              By the time the commercial crew systems are ready for NASA, that is paying, flights it will be 2019 and the station will have a year or so left. That is not enough time for commercial crew companies to get up and running to prove that they can operate profitably in LEO.

              Charlie has been screaming about this and I’m surprised you don’t get it that commercial crew really is on the ropes right now. Congress is wondering why it should continue to fund the billions NASA wants for the commercial crew program when Soyuz flights through 2020 are far cheaper, are already funded through 2017, and ISS is to be splashed in 2020 so that we can focus on the Moon again. The only way that equation changes is if:

              a) One of the commercial space billionaires (Elon?) writes a check commiserate with their net wealth to prime the funding pump for commercial crew.
              b) NASA ditches two of the commercial crew companies before FY2014 to focus on one.
              c) ISS is kept in orbit substantially beyond 2020.

              If none of those options is exercised, all you wrote about Bigelow’s plans is pure fantasy.

              • Nobody will have to write a check… Yes, I perfectly understand the principle. Yes, the question is can it be operated profitably?

                There are no other alternatives to ISS That simply is not true. Economics science says there are ALWAYS alternatives. It’s the very definition of economics.

                Commercial crew is only ‘on the ropes’ if, as Boeing has made clear, they have no business case without NASA. SpaceX does have a business case and will go forward regardless of what happens to the I.S.S.

                Soyuz flights through 2020 are far cheaper

                Offer SpaceX a contract for $60m per seat and I’m sure they will be glad to give up any development funds just on the possibility that flight to the I.S.S. will extend beyond 2020.

                Bigelow’s plan is pure fantasy.

                Bigelow has moved well beyond fantasy. Shall I point out why?

  • To me it’s interesting that the Romans made things to last a thousand years and we have trouble making things go past ten. It has nothing to do with space. Here’s a clue.

    • Ken,
      While we don’t mind you posting a link back to your blog – it would have been better received if you hadn’t said: “Here’s a clue:” – this seems to imply the author doesn’t have a clue.
      Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

      • Here’s a clue was referring to my own comment about not being just a space issue. Sorry about the confusion. I’m often in a quandary about keeping my comments pithy vs. too much elaboration.

    • Jim Hillhouse

      Ken,

      So let me get this straight. You link to AmericaSpace to inflate your traffic under the title, “Here’s a clue”?

      I half-heartedly suggest you not do that again.

      • Jim,

        I’m not looking for traffic. My blog is without commercial interest. I just want to share in the conversation. However, links do serve a purpose. It allows you to elaborate for only those that are interested.

        I’m not all that impressed with my own self importance. I care about truth.

  • If they were to sell the I.S.S. in 2020, rather than dropping it into the ocean, what would be the terms? If sold outright, what would a used $150b station sell for?

    • See my reply above. Assume operational control, along with the budgetary obligations, of ISS over a 5-year period beginning in 2015 with no money down. It really is a sweetheart deal.

  • The operational cost of the I.S.S. are north of a billion a year. I expect a business taking over would probably lower those costs, but could they do so and profit? This is what makes a lower cost alternative more probable.

    • One would hope. If commercial space can successfully operate ISS at or near break-even, not only does it mean that there is a destination for, and therefore a justification for continued funding of, commercial crew, it also means that LEO can be a profit center. That. Would. Be. Big. News.

  • Jason M.

    First, NASA doesn’t have complete control over the ISS. And while you mention the partners in the case of ongoing support, you don’t mention them regarding this proposed transition. Will Russia just give it away to American commercial interests? What about Japan? Kibo isn’t that old.

    Second, back to the current funding requirements. You claim the partners don’t want their limited funds going towards an aging station. You can’t then show only NASA’s contribution and claim that accurately represents the cost of ISS. How much do the partners spend, and what does that bring the total yearly cost to? For example, how many flights does Russia send to the ISS per year, how much does all that cost?

    Third, potential profitability can only be determined once that true cost is known. That includes both the the contributions of the partners, and the potential payment they may want for giving it away to American business interests. They may want cash, but they may just want continued access.

    Fourth, is the issue of access. Is this a complete turn of control over to commercial interests? Can NASA, or the partners be denied access? If they still have some access, that will obviously limit commercial availability.

    Fifth, is this just another way for you to take a dig a commercial space? It would be nice to be wrong, but if you are really concerned about the economics at NASA, I await your critical review of the cost of maintaining a HLV that will only fly every other year at best.

    • jim hillhouse

      First, NASA doesn’t have complete control over the ISS. And while you mention the partners in the case of ongoing support, you don’t mention them regarding this proposed transition. Will Russia just give it away to American commercial interests? What about Japan? Kibo isn’t that old.

      The Russians have not indicated any interest in joining, much less encouraging as have the ESA and Japan, the US to return to the Moon. Instead, the Russians have stated that, should the other ISS int’l partners not wish to continue operating ISS beyond 2020, they would separate their units and reconstitute a new space station.

      You’re also implying, perhaps unintentionally, that a sunk cost is no reason to continue funding an operation. The Moon is a much bigger scientific prize than anything in LEO.

      Second, back to the current funding requirements. You claim the partners don’t want their limited funds going towards an aging station. You can’t then show only NASA’s contribution and claim that accurately represents the cost of ISS. How much do the partners spend, and what does that bring the total yearly cost to? For example, how many flights does Russia send to the ISS per year, how much does all that cost?

      I don’t have, nor did I seek, the funding levels of either the ESA or JAXA. For debating what the United States should do regarding its future human space exploration efforts, that information was as immaterial as the funding levels of the ESA and JAXA are compared to that of the United States for ISS operations.

      Look at it another way; the ESA doesn’t want to continue to fund its ISS obligations via ATV but is willing to fund the development of an Orion SM based on the ATV hardware. That decision by itself should tell you where the hearts of the ESA partners are in space exploration. At the risk of being redundant, their heart is away from, not on, LEO operations.

      Third, potential profitability can only be determined once that true cost is known. That includes both the the contributions of the partners, and the potential payment they may want for giving it away to American business interests. They may want cash, but they may just want continued access.

      And the funding level at which the ISS can be operated by a gov’t-industry partnership through increased efficiencies will not be known until that path is pursued.

      Industry will certainly be able to operate ISS more efficiently than NASA just as industry will surely be able to operate crewed flights to the ISS more efficiently than NASA. Such efficiencies in operating ISS will save everyone precious human spaceflight funding for other uses, just as commercially operated crewed flights will do the same.

      I really do not understand your hesitancy in having industry operate ISS when the conventional wisdom among so many in the space advocacy community is that industry will radically lower the cost of crewed access to space.

      Fourth, is the issue of access. Is this a complete turn of control over to commercial interests? Can NASA, or the partners be denied access? If they still have some access, that will obviously limit commercial availability.

      Terms regarding NASA’s access to ISS would certainly be part of any partnership contract between NASA and industry. I can only assume that such a partnership contract would in the area of access to ISS resemble that of NASA’s access to commercial crew flights.

      Fifth, is this just another way for you to take a dig a commercial space? It would be nice to be wrong, but if you are really concerned about the economics at NASA, I await your critical review of the cost of maintaining a HLV that will only fly every other year at best.

      The commercial space community has made the argument that it can run things more efficiently than NASA. Offering one a chance to prove a point is a double-edged sword for all parties. That is not an excuse to not pursue an effort to try to extend ISS by taking advantage of the efficiencies that commercial space companies are so apt to advertise. If it works out, terrific! If it doesn’t, then at least it was tried.

      NASA certainly cannot afford ISS at its current and projected funding levels and a BEO exploration program without a significant funding increase, an unlikely scenario given the likely projected funding environment. Although the commercial space advocacy community has been quick to repeat, likly in hopes that it will become reality if said often enough, that the space agency cannot afford its HLV and the exploration program that will go along with it, there is no definitive work to indicate that such is the case. Were NASA to focus its billions in human space exploration funding on beyond LEO activities, I’m not sure how one stands by the notion that NASA cannot afford an HLV. If you’ve some insight in this matter, please do share that.

      If I’m still doing this in 2015 or 2016, I’ll be glad to do an article on the costs of operating the first block or two of SLS. Stay tuned.

    • Jason M:

      And I thought my answers were pretty clear, alas…

      Privatization or a different contracting method for ISS operations? An excellent question! I wish I had an answer. I would naturally assume that the answer to your question would necessarily come through negotiations during the course of arranging such a gov’t-private partnership. I would also assume that, since the US funds the vast majority of ISS obligations, other ISS partners, including the Russians, would be interested in any arrangement that allows ISS to continue operations beyond 2020 but at a reduced funding level. And if the Russians say, “Nyet!”? “Khorosho!”, we splash ISS and return to the Moon while they are stuck in LEO.

      More fundamentally, I think you misunderstand the purpose of the article, which was to get readers thinking about the idea of transitioning ISS from an outpost solely run as a gov’t facility to one run…well, differently and not to get into the weeds on the specifics of how that would be done. This is a general space, not an aerospace contracting law, website.

  • Jason M.,
    Your last comment was obnoxious(“I will try to keep it simple this time so as not to confuse you…”)therefore it was deleted . AmericaSpace is a troll-free zone. If you cannot win a debate without resorting to snarky comments you’ll be permanently banned.
    Jason Rhian – Editor, AmericaSpace

  • Tihomir

    Well, what part of ISS is property of NASA? How do Russians, the ESA, CSA, and JAXA, think about the continued use of the ISS? Is anyone else considering commercializing the ISS and, if not, how would any NASA commercialization of the ISS fit into the international partners’ plans?

    • Tihomir,

      If you read the article, you’ll note in the third paragraph,

      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.

      All of your questions about who owns what on ISS can be answered here.

      The U.S. provided the solar arrays, truss structures, pma’s, Destiny lab, Unity and Harmony nodes, Airlock, Shuttle missions to deliver not only the U.S. sections but those of JAXA, CSA, and ESA.

      As for the Russians, if they were to go through with their idea to remove their sections of ISS, attitude and orbit control provided by the Zvezda would be lost. Of course, the Russians would also be left with a much smaller and less capable station that their space program can ill afford while also trying to advance out of LEO. ESA, JAXA, and CSA would like to explore again, a.k.a. going to the Moon and beyond.

      So, it goes without saying, that the goal of any effort in trying to “privatize” ISS would necessarily require two overarching goals:
      1) All ISS partners must be “in” on privatizing ISS. Fortunately, none of the partners, including NASA, either want or can afford their ISS commitments and human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit. Since the U.S. is the largest ISS partner, it falls to the U.S. to start this process, if it is to gain any momentum.
      2) The effort must provide for a real privatization of ISS, which means operational and budgetary responsibility. That means the budgetary impact to each partner must be a real reduction of their ISS budget.

      As I mentioned to Jason M, this article was a thought exercise, not a formal proposal. There are chasms in the article concerning what precisely needs to be done to actually make such a privatization possible.

      One final note in my final comment on this article. In all likelihood, the only company that could realistically begin to operate ISS for profit on behalf of the partners would be Boeing, since it for the most part managed the construction of ISS. Anyone else claiming that they can operate ISS better than Boeing must be treated very skeptically.

  • James Muncy

    Apologies for an overdue response to this excellent article.

    Actually, Jim, I wrote legislation which became law back in 1998
    and 2000 which pushed NASA to look at privatizing ISS. NASA’s
    response was that they would choose to privatize the scientific
    research function first, rather than actual operations. As Republican staffers, we could not believe that scientific research, which is clearly an appropriate government function, would be privatized but not cargo and crew transportation, which certainly make sense to turn over to the private sector.

    But those running that part of NASA at that time (they are all long gone now) did not want to give up control of the spaceflight part, whereas they didn’t give a damn about controlling the actual science. (After all, they had cut science utilization by much more than a billion over a decade to help feed ISS construction.)

    Perhaps this idea can come back again now.

    Bottom line: at least one commercial advocate has been for this idea for quite a long time.

    • Jim:

      Thanks for the comment and the information on your previous efforts to privatize ISS and your kind words about the article.

      I would sure like to have your perspective on this issue, as some here think the whole notion of privatizing ISS undoable. Would you be willing to write an article about your experience of the 1998 and 2000 efforts? I know it would be educational for all of us.

      I (obviously) have not been a huge fan of NASA’s commercial space efforts to date, but neither am I oblivious to NASA’s inability to operate ISS, or any other space endeavor, in a lean manner. If we want our cake and to eat it too, then some way has to be found to operate ISS, along with its access, in a manner that frees up NASA funding so that the space agency can move us forward in human space exploration.

      Thanks again and I hope you’ll write that article.

      Jim