Senators, inspector general question NASA ISS transition plans

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WASHINGTON — Testimony by NASA’s Inspector General at a May 16 hearing provided new support to efforts by two senators to block plans to end funding of the International Space Station in 2025.

At the hearing, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the full Senate Commerce Committee, reiterated their opposition to the proposal included in NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget request to end funding of the ISS in 2025 and transition to commercial facilities in low Earth orbit.

“Nowhere in federal statute is there a request from Congress seeking a hard deadline to end federal support for ISS, to cross our fingers and hope for the best,” Cruz said in his opening statement, comparing such a “premature” end to the retirement of the space shuttle and cancellation of the Constellation program. “Prematurely cancelling a program for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars.”

“Abandoning this incredible orbiting laboratory where they are doing research, when we are on the cusp of a new era of space exploration, would be irresponsible at best and probably disastrous,” said Nelson.

One of the hearing’s two witnesses, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, shared his concerns about the agency’s ISS transition plans. He said his office is working on an audit of ISS operations and transition planning to be released in the next few weeks but provided a few observations from that work that undercut NASA’s plans.

Martin said he was skeptical that there was a business case for commercialization of the station. “We question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business using the ISS independent of significant government funding,” he said. “The scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans.”

Even if commercialization of the station was possible, he said NASA’s cost savings would be less than expected. NASA would likely continue to be a user of the station and would bear those costs. “Any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up $3–4 billion beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking,” he said.

NASA would likely continue to need to use the station, Martin argued, since many of its research goals for the station won’t be completed by 2024. At least 6 of 20 research topics in health risks performed on the ISS, and 4 of 40 technology gap research areas, won’t be completed by the end of 2024.

Later in the hearing, Cruz pressed Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, about details of the ISS transition report required by the 2017 NASA authorization act that the agency submitted to Congress at the end of March. Cruz was in particular interested in the number of drafts NASA prepared and sent to the White House for review, suggesting that the administration sought significant changes to that report.

“Is it correct that NASA sent at least two drafts to the administration, both of which were rejected?” Cruz asked.

“I would say they’ve never been rejected,” Gerstenmaier responded. “They’d get sent over and we’d get comments back. We iterate back and forth on the comments.” He added that NASA missed a December 2017 deadline to submit the report because of the time it took NASA to gather all of the information requested, and not because of the review process with the White House.

“It is my concern that considerations other than the merit of the science drove this decision-making process,” Cruz said, noting that he and Nelson and yet to receive a response from NASA to a February letter asking for those drafts of the report.

Gerstenmaier also confirmed that the 2025 date for ending federal funding for the station was set by the administration, and not by NASA. “It came from the administration,” he said. “We didn’t see the necessity of picking a specific date within the agency, but as part of the administration we came to the conclusion that picking a date would prompt a serious discussion.”

Such a discussion has ensued, but Cruz nor Nelson, the only two senators to participate in the hearing, reiterated their continued opposition to ending funding of the station in 2025. Late in the hearing, Nelson asked Gerstenmaier who would join NASA on a commercial space station.

“We’re starting to see a variety of companies find benefit they can gain by doing research on board the station,” Gerstenmaier said, citing several examples. “It’s a slow, stepwise process.”

“You have just well made the case for extending the ISS,” Nelson responded.

Cruz reiterated earlier comments about the station having strong bipartisan support in Congress. “It will be Congress that is the final arbiter of how long ISS receives federal funding,” he said.