The U.S. is Facing a Choice Between the International Space Station and a New Deep Space Rocket

Astronauts participate in ISS maintenance in 2006. Astronauts participate in ISS maintenance in 2006. NASA file photo

In one corner, we have an international, orbital laboratory that cost over $150 billion to build and operate. In the other, a $23 billion and growing program to develop a huge new deep-space rocket and spacecraft to carry humans to the moon and beyond. Now, they will face off in a Darwinian struggle for survival, unless US lawmakers can find a third way.

“About half of the current [NASA] budget is allocated to low-Earth orbit endeavors which consist of the International Space Station, commercial cargo, and commercial crew,” a former NASA and Lockheed Martin executive, A. Thomas Young, told US lawmakers in February. “The other half of the budget is for human exploration which includes [the Space Launch System rocket] and Orion [spacecraft]. A $4.5 billion annual budget is clearly inadequate for a credible human exploration program. A choice must be made and made soon between [low-Earth orbit] and exploration.”

The decision won’t be made this year. Though there was an astronaut in the oval office as a beaming president Donald Trump signed a bill March 21 to fund NASA through 2018, it didn’t bring the government any closer to launching humans to the ISS, much less to distant planets.

“This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, an advocate of Martian exploration, occasional Trump advisor, and NASA contractor, wrote on Twitter. “Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars. Perhaps there will be some future bill that makes a difference for Mars, but this is not it.”

A false choice?

Most independent experts share Musk’s view that the budget does not meaningfully change the balance Young described between supporting the ISS and its commercial programs, and funding the deep-space exploration budget.

The bifurcation exists because the attempt to replace the retired Space Shuttle with a new US -government rocket built with traditional contracting methods was cancelled by the Obama administration after going over budget and falling behind schedule. Embarrassingly dependent on Russia to access the space station, the US pushed money toward faster and cheaper commercial programs to ferry cargo and then astronauts to ISS, sometimes referred to as the “space taxi” program, while repurposing the cancelled rocket’s technology toward deep space exploration in the form of SLS and Orion.

In the last decade of shrinking US government budgets, a zero-sum dynamic has emerged that has hindered both efforts. SpaceX and Boeing’s efforts in the ISS “space taxi” program have faced delays due to underfunding, while the current budget for SLS and Orion contemplates just two flights by 2021. That’s hardly the major exploration program anyone envisions, and one reason the Trump White House has pushed NASA to add astronauts to the system’s first flight.

There’s another way to look at the dilemma: it may be a false choice. The US government could decide to fully fund both programs. NASA officials like human exploration chief William Gerstenmaier say that ISS serves as an important testbed for the technologies needed to take humans beyond low-Earth orbit, even as they make clear that those exploration programs are their first priority.

“NASA’s predominant role should be to move to deep space, and take the private sector along with us to deep space, and to do that we need to relinquish the NASA role in low-Earth orbit,” Gerstenmaier said last week.

Trump, in his own way, has put his finger on why it has been so difficult for Congress to choose between fishing and cutting bait.

“The folks behind me have been so involved in it,” Trump said of the powerful lawmakers who had sponsored the NASA spending bill. “They love NASA. They love everything it stands for and they love the people in their areas. You have a couple of areas that are going to be very much benefited by this…it’s a lot of jobs and these are great jobs.”

Dueling visions

The major contractors behind SLS and Orion, especially Boeing and Lockheed, have a long history of close cooperation and rich contracts with NASA, protecting this relationship with political support from politicians whose districts host their factories and design centers. The companies who operate more independently from government space programs, particularly SpaceX, have gained political clout in recent years with strategic investments, but still face a deficit of influence.

Yet the failure of the traditional contractor model to replace the Space Shuttle made clear the necessity of a new approach; Boeing’s decision to participate in the “space taxi” program reflects this reality. With multiple new heavy rockets expected from US companies in the coming years, the fear in traditional aerospace circles is that even the most extreme exploration missions will also be outsourced to cheaper rockets, just as NASA is attempting to do with flight to low-Earth orbit.

The newer space companies face a fear of their own: That the ISS will cease operations in 2024, as currently planned. They and some within the US government want to extend the station’s operation until 2028, in an effort to continue recouping the initial costs, continue scientific projects and because of its importance to commercial space. NASA’s “space taxi” programs provide vital funding to SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada Space Systems, while ISS play hosts to commercial companies ranging from space imagers to cubesat launchers to space hotel developers.

A path to transition

The leadership of the House science committee made clear what it thinks of that extension during a hearing on the future of the space station on March 22:

“It’s probably not too far a leap to say that the initial point of the hearing was to draw a contrast of SLS vs. ISS and the futures of each respective program,” says Phil Larson, a former Obama space advisor and SpaceX employee who now works at the University of Colorado. “And that’s why I think you saw the [witness list] at first not include any commercial spaceflight companies.”

After some pointed tweets, Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, was added to the panel to make the case for an extension. His argument was that broader use of public-private partnerships at ISS could generate more revenue to offset operational costs. But he also made clear that supporting the operating costs of ISS after 2024 was not a task private industry is able to take on.

“The commercial sector is moving in the right direction [but] to fully privatize the station it would be difficult, you would need that expertise that NASA offers,” Stallmer said. “Fifty-fifty would be a great starting off point.”

That model may provide an opportunity for a third way between choosing deep space or low-Earth orbit. Another reason to delay the closure of the ISS might be increasing concern over other countries’ space ambitions, expressed by Texas representative Brian Babin as a fear of “turning over human presence in low-Earth orbit to China.”

Some excuse to earn or reallocate more funding may be necessary for the success of either program, as many lawmakers would rather have their cake and eat it too—the exact situation that has left both programs behind schedule.

“We have the commercial companies going to and from the International Space Station and we have NASA going out and exploring the heavens,” Florida senator Bill Nelson said after Trump signed the NASA spending bill. “And we’re going to Mars.”

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