NASA chief warns of gap after retirement of International Space Station

File photo from the International Space Station as the outpost flew over the Nile River delta n Egypt in August 2019. Credit: NASA

The International Space Station is likely to continue operating for another decade, but without more government support, a privately-owned outpost may not be ready in time to replace it, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

Bridenstine told Spaceflight Now he is concerned that a commercial space station may not be ready by the time the International Space Station reaches the end of its life.

While NASA focuses more resources on a return of astronauts to the moon, and eventually human expeditions to Mars, the space agency still wants to send experiments and crews into low Earth orbit to test out technologies for deep space exploration and perform other research investigations.

Instead of owning and operating a space station itself, the government wants to lease accommodations on a commercial outpost in orbit.

“Under no circumstances should we have a gap in low Earth orbit,” Bridenstine in an interview. “We’ve been asking Congress to fund the development of commercial habitation in low Earth orbit now for a number of years. And every year … Congress doesn’t fund it.

“If we keep going down this path where we don’t fund the replacement for the space station, we will end up with a gap, which I think is very bad for the country,” Bridenstine said. “Just like after Apollo ended, we had an eight year gap before space shuttle. Just like after shuttle ended, we had a nine year gap before we did commercial crew.”

With SpaceX on the verge of starting operational commercial crew flights to the International Space Station, transportation services to low Earth orbit for people and cargo are now run by the private sector. Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which could become operational next year after encountering delays, will be a second vehicle for commercial crew transportation to low Earth orbit.

Congress has committed NASA to continuing International Space Station operations through at least 2024. Lawmakers have proposed another extension to 2028 or 2030, and Bridenstine said he is confident Congress will soon pass a bill to extend NASA’s support of the ISS program through at least the late 2020s.

Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency, said last month that Russia is “ready to consider” any proposal to extend the International Space Station’s lifetime.

But Congress has not been as keen to provide NASA funding to jump-start development of new commercial habitats in low Earth orbit. That raises worries that the continuous presence of humans in orbit — began 20 years ago last month with the launch of the first International Space Station crew — may end when the ISS is decommissioned.

NASA hopes a privately-owned outpost will be cheaper to operate than the $3 billion to $4 billion the space agency spends each year operating the ISS.

“We need to make sure that we’re investing today for commercial habitation in the future because NASA wants to be a customer in low Earth orbit, not the owner-operator,” Bridenstine said. “And I think that there’s opportunity to avoid a gap if we start right now, but the longer we go, the more likely it is that we’re going to have a gap.”

The Trump administration requested $150 million for NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization initiative in fiscal year 2020, but Congress only approved $15 million for the program.

The funding shortfall caused NASA to put on hold a solicitation for a company to build a commercial “free-flyer” space station.

“Before we can get a solicitation out, we’ve to make sure that we’ve got funding for a selection, so that’s what we’re working on now,” Bridenstine said.

“The big thing that I’m worried about is that the ISS comes the end of its useful life, and we don’t have a replacement,” Bridenstine said. “And I’ll tell you why that’s a problem. It’s a problem because China is building their own space station, and they’re going to be attracting partners from around the world, and I think the United States of America should be in the lead.”

NASA has made more progress with an effort to add a privately-owned module to the International Space Station. Earlier this year, NASA selected Axiom Space of Houston to attach a commercial module to the ISS.

Axiom eventually plans to build a commercial space station using its ISS module as the core of a new orbiting research complex. Axiom’s module would be detached before the decommissioning of the International Space Station, which will end with a guided, destructive re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

NASA’s $140 million contract with Axiom covers just a fraction of the cost of the company’s planned space station. And NASA is paying Axiom to demonstrate its capabilities. Funding to actually build the modules will come from other sources.

“Overall, the cost is $2.5 to $3 billion to build our whole space station, and the sum total of the contract we have with the government … is $140 million over five to seven years, depending on extensions,” said Mike Suffredini, Axiom’s CEO, in an interview with Spaceflight Now in September.

“All the development money is coming from either revenue or investment, and we’re very proud of that,” Suffredini said. “We’re right on schedule relative to investments. That’s a critical part of progress, and we like where we are.”

Axiom is also working with NASA to fly paying private astronauts to the ISS.

NanoRacks, another Houston-based company, is also interested in developing a commercial outpost to host people and experiments. NanoRacks plans to launch a small commercial airlock to the International Space Station later this year.

Bigelow Aerospace, founded by real estate entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, has pursued plans to build a privately-owned space station using inflatable habitats for more than 20 years. But Bigelow laid off its entire workforce in March, according to Space News.

Space News reported Bigelow said in January 2020 that NASA needs to provide “substantial government subsidies for a period of time until industries can stand on their own feet.”

Bigelow Aerospace did not respond to questions from Spaceflight Now.

“There are all kinds of commercial companies that want to do amazing things in space, so long as the taxpayer funds it,” Bridenstine told Spaceflight Now. “I think we need to have some really strong public-private partnerships for the development of the capability, and there needs to be an offer. Look, we want to be a partner in the development, for sure, but … in the long run, we want to be a customer, period.”

Artist’s concept of Axiom’s space station, which the company says will be constructed while attached to the International Space Station, then detach to form an independent commercial research complex. Credit: Axiom Space

The Science and Technology Policy Institute, a federally-funded research center, concluded in a 2017 market analysis that it was unlikely a commercially owned and operated space station would be economically viable by 2025, when the Trump administration proposed ending government support for the ISS.

The analysis showed that the annual operating costs for a commercial space station could range from $463 million to $2.25 billion. The report identified several types of activities that could generate revenue on a private space station in low Earth orbit, including its use as a human habitat or destination, satellite servicing, in-space manufacturing, basic research, technology demonstration, Earth observation, advertising, and education.

Boeing, NASA’s lead contractor in charge of the International Space Station, is supporting Axiom and NanoRacks in their development of new commercial space habitats. So far, Boeing has announced no plans to build its own space station.

“It’s going to be really important for companies like Boeing and others to make sure that over the long term, you can close the business case,” said John Mulholland, Boeing’s ISS program manager.

“We continue to evaluate that, and certainly, we’re looking in a number of areas where we can add value and contribute, either from a prime or a support role,” Mulholland told reporters in October. “But it all depends on the needs of the customer and the business case around it. In the near-term … our focus today is supporting these two companies (Axiom and NanoRacks) and other companies.

“We’re looking at opportunities that where we can provide more to our customer,” Mulholland said. “We’re looking at a number of avenues that we’re not ready to discuss today.”

“We’ve been the prime integrator of all science that rolls through the space station,” Mulholland said. “So all payload integration is performed by this team.

“On Axiom, we’re involved on the on the early stages of the design,” Mulholland said. “We’re going through and working, right now, with Axiom on the evaluation of the early design work that’s being done, and helping them lay out a path to further advance it to final design.”

Mulholland said Boeing’s engineers have performed structural analyses that show the International Space Station can safely remain operational for at least another decade.

“From all the analysis that has been done, technically, we can support 2030 and beyond,” Mulholland said. “We’re finalizing that analysis, so we’re looking forward from a policy standpoint, for policymakers to memorialize that in legislation, which we expect next year, and we’re very supportive of that. Technically, that analysis is near complete.”

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