Space station supporters prepare for budget battle

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WASHINGTON — As the administration prepares to release a fiscal year 2019 budget proposal that may call for ending International Space Station operations in the mid-2020s, advocates for the station in Congress and industry are making the case for keeping the station operating well beyond that.

The budget proposal, scheduled for release Feb. 12, is rumored to contain language calling for the end of NASA funding for ISS operations by 2025, based on a draft of a budget document leaked last month. Neither NASA nor the administration have confirmed those plans.

Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, said Feb. 7 at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference that the budget proposal, as well as an ISS transition plan required by a 2017 NASA authorization bill, would shed light on the administration’s future plans for the station and a shift to commercial facilities in low Earth orbit.

“Congress has asked for us to generate a transition plan and a direction, and that and the budget submit will be coming out soon,” he said. “We want to utilize the space station as much as we can in the remaining time it has and we want to think about what we do next with our partners, both commercial and international.”

The prospect of ending the ISS in the mid-2020s, though, has triggered criticism from some members of Congress. Among those opposed to terminating the ISS then is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.

“There are reports that the administration’s new budget would suggest that federal funding for the ISS would expire in 2025,” he said in a speech at the conference later the same day. “I hope that those reports prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.”

Cruz warned that if “numbskulls” at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget do include such language, it would conflict with provisions in the 2017 authorization bill that require studying extending ISS operations to 2028 and beyond. He also said it made little sense to end the ISS in 2025 when it still had potentially years of useful life ahead of it.

“We have invested massively in the ISS. It has produced enormous benefits to the United States and the world, and we should use that asset as long as it is technologically feasible and cost-effective to do so,” he said. “As long as I’m chairman of the science and space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong and bipartisan support in the United States Congress.”

Other key members of Congress oppose a mid-2020s end to the ISS. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the full Senate Commerce Committee, spoke out against the news immediately after the document leaked. “If the administration plans to abruptly pull us out of the International Space Station in 2025, they’re going to have a fight on their hands,” he said in a Jan. 25 statement.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, offered his support for extended ISS operations in a letter published by the Houston Chronicle Feb. 4. “I want to reassure the scientists, engineers and astronauts at NASA that I will fully fund the International Space Station, and I will do everything in my power to keep the International Space Station flying as long as the safety engineers tell us it is feasible to do so,” he wrote.

Industry support

At the FAA conference, several executives with Boeing, NASA’s prime contractor for the ISS, spoke in favor of continuing ISS operations beyond the mid-2020s while developing a transition plan to gradually move operations to future commercial space facilities in LEO.

“There are rumors about putting an end date out there,” said Peter McGrath, director of global sales and marketing for space and missile systems at Boeing, during a Feb. 8 panel discussion. Those rumors, he said, had caused an unnamed prospective user of the station “to step back a little bit” and reconsider those plans.

“The key is to look at a good transition plan, a timeline where you look at capability-based transition. That’s what you really want for the space station, instead of an end date,” he said, but offered one potential long-term end date based on engineering. “The space station can probably last until about 2040 if you look at it structurally.”

An early end to the ISS, other company executives warned, jeopardized the growth of a commercial industry in LEO. “We have seen the damage caused by the early retirement of the space shuttle program before we fielded another domestic human transportation platform,” said John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, in a Feb. 7 speech. “We should not advocate for or allow a premature retirement of the ISS.”

The ISS, he said, provided an opportunity for companies to demonstrate their capabilities both for supporting commercial activities in LEO as well as being part of partnerships for future missions beyond Earth orbit. “That partnership must be earned and demonstrated through sustained performance, and we as an industry have gaps that must be closed,” he said, citing delays in the commercial cargo and crew programs, including Boeing’s own CST-100 Starliner vehicle.

John Elbon, vice president and general manager of space exploration at Boeing, also warned of the dangers of an abrupt early end of the ISS. “If we abruptly end that, without a smooth transition plan, all that investment will be for naught,” he said during a Feb. 8 panel discussion. “We will cede the commercialization of low Earth orbit to somebody else who has a space station.”

“It would be very difficult to survive a transition where we abruptly end the station with the idea that a new capability is going to come some number of years away, and have this commercial industry survive through that kind of gap,” he said.

Supporters of the ISS say they recognize that the station’s operations will need to come to an end one day, but want to keep the station running as long as it remains useful to do so. “There will come a time when it is at the end of its usable life,” Cruz said. “But it is in the interest of everyone to extend that time as long as humanly possible.”