Donald Trump’s administration is floating a proposal to return to the moon — and to shut down the International Space Station to help pay for it.
The first part of this idea is good. The second is horrible. If enacted, it could well spell the end of NASA’s human spaceflight for the foreseeable future.
There is a wild card here, too: I refer to the commercial spaceflight efforts of companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. For the first time, visionary leaders of commercial companies are striving to build space infrastructure and exploration programs funded by commercial activities. Yes, there is the possibility of NASA partnering with them, but that is not the pressing question in my view now; the continuation of ISS is.
Consider, to begin, that the International Space Station, or ISS, is an essential piece of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s program for space exploration. The biggest technical challenge to sending astronauts on farther and longer missions is biomedical: How do we keep them healthy? We need the ISS to help us find out.
We need it as an engineering test bed, so we can learn how to build robust life-support and other systems for voyages to destinations like Mars.
The United States ended the space shuttle program in 2011, after the ISS was complete. We gave up a national treasure, forever. Beyond the loss of prestige and pride, with the end of the space shuttle program, we lost huge operational capabilities. We have not been able to send astronauts to space ourselves since then.
The shuttle was able to launch seven astronauts and nearly 60,000 pounds of payload into low Earth orbit. None of the spacecraft that might be built in the next few years comes close to that capability. Now, if the administration succeeds in ending the ISS program by 2025, our future in space will be set back even more.
The ISS has not been without controversy and well-deserved criticism. I was a graduate student in 1984 when President Ronald Reagan called for the construction of a new space station. I knew then that I wanted to apply for the astronaut program, and this was an exciting development. The idea was to build a moderately sized station with Europe, Japan and Canada. By the time I was accepted by NASA and reported for duty at the Johnson Space Center, the space-station program had been expanded and been given the name Freedom.
Things were a mess, and a few years later, when Freedom was canceled, some NASA employees started selling Space Station Freedom shirts that read, “10 Years and 10 Billion Dollars, and All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt.”
But then a redesigned station emerged, tentatively called “Alpha,” and was finally built as the ISS. Although this new station had its own growing pains, it has performed magnificently. It cost about $100 billion to build and its annual operating budget is around $4 billion, although that number can be misleading.
This is because there are many things in the ISS budget that have to do with NASA infrastructure.
When I served on the Review of US Human Spaceflight Plans Committee in 2008 and 2009, the space shuttle was already slated for cancellation by the administration of President George W. Bush. Barack Obama’s administration agreed to continue with cancellation of the shuttle, and to use the perceived savings to fund a Beyond-Low-Earth Exploration program. However, because the cost of the shuttle program — about $4 billion a year — included such ongoing infrastructure costs as the Kennedy Space Center, the actual savings were only about half the program budget.
I was a part of the small minority on the committee that proposed keeping the shuttle flying until at least 2015. We recognized that if we lost the shuttle, the savings would not amount to much, certainly not enough to fund an exploration program. Unfortunately, the Obama administration did not select that option. Nine years later, here we are: We have no shuttle program, a very stretched-out development program for the Orion and SLS rocket, and no real mission to go anywhere.
Fortunately, we have still been operating ISS, with Russian rockets and spacecraft, for the last six years or so.
What about privatizing the ISS? That idea is barely worth mentioning. The ISS was designed to operate with two big mission control centers, in Houston and Moscow. They each need standing armies to protect them.
Estimates of the cost of launching spacecraft to the ISS vary, but they are certainly in the range of $100 million or more. Let’s not even consider maintenance costs. Tell me with a straight face how a commercial entity is going to make money operating ISS?
The Trump administration’s thoughts to cancel ISS and send the savings to the moon is déjà vu. The actual savings will likely be again around 50% of the ISS program cost, and all we are likely to end up with is an inadequately funded moon program, as we have had for the last nine years. And no ISS, either.
This path would likely leave us with nothing but a bare-bones spacecraft and rocket and no funding to go anywhere.
Unless, of course, we decide to fly American astronauts on Chinese spacecraft to the coming Chinese space station. This would be a national travesty. What we need is a real commitment to maintain US leadership in human spaceflight.
We should continue supporting ISS first, and if we can afford it, to funding a lunar exploration program that leads to an international Mars program. Don’t sacrifice the ISS to continue to halfheartedly fund future exploration. Don’t cede American leadership in space, and risk going the way of other former great nations.