Commentary | Keep ISS Alive!
In the 1990s as a leader of the Space Frontier Foundation, I worked to cancel what was then called Space Station Freedom. Announced in 1984 by President Ronald Reagan, the original concept had been pitched at around $8 billion. Based on what we saw happening to what might have been a good idea, we were the only space organization to come out against the project. We believed that if the president’s goal was to open the frontier as stated, there were much better and lower-cost ways to do so that were more directly evolvable and supportive than where it seemed the station was going.
We were right. By the time construction stopped (notice I did not say “completed” — as it never has been) NASA and its partners had spent over $100 billion on what we now call the international space station. Actually, the cost may be much higher, depending on whose numbers you believe, and if they do or do not count the space shuttle in the total. (Given that over 75 percent of all shuttle flights were in some way in support of the station, we probably should.)
It was a tough battle, and at one point we got within one vote of killing the program. (Or as my then and current NASA friends say, they saved the program by one vote.) At that point, given our limited resources and the virtually unlimited money on the other side, we decided it was time to be for something good rather than against something bad. In fact, in a set of behind-the-scenes phone calls right after the vote, we traded our campaign to stop the station for then-NASA Administrator Dan Goldin’s support of an exciting and revolutionary new space transportation project called the DC-X, short forClipper Experimental, which had run out of military funding and needed help.
Shortly thereafter, I was confronted by one of the old heroes of what would become the “new space” movement, Tom Rogers. He stabbed his finger into my chest and said: “Well, Rick, you did the right thing, but now you’ve got a multibillion-dollar lemon up there in orbit! So what are you going to do about it? How are you going to use it to get what you kids want?”
I listened. A bit later, I testified in front of the House Science space subcommittee. Speaking for the foundation, I laid out how we could use the space station as a customer and catalyst to accelerate the opening of the frontier. Using the analogies of Lewis and Clark exploring in support of the pioneers, and of a government fort on the frontier as the seed of many a modern city, I spoke of how NASA could turn the space station from a dead-end financial black hole into a port and shining star of public-private partnership whose visibility, both literal and in real terms, would demonstrate a path forward that would help everyone get what they want in space.
I saw the space station not just as a port on the ocean of space and a lab at which we would learn how to live there, but as a primer for the economic pump that would help kick-start an industrial economy, as a testing facility for new ideas, as a purchaser of goods and services and, yes, as the first new building on the orbital street. In keeping with the then-current conceptual name of the station and as an indicator of its being the nucleus of the first community in space, I called it Alpha Town.
In that 1995 testimony and opinion pieces that followed, I called for all NASA transportation to and from the station to be provided by commercial companies, all new power needs to be supplied by off-site utilities to enable space-to-space power beaming, and all expansion of needs to be supported by leasing commercial or recycling existing space assets (including Mir, then scheduled for deorbit).
At the core of these ideas was a cultural shift at NASA, the idea being that if it adopted the role of gardener instead of turf protector, instead of being threatened by new space facilities or activities it could celebrate them and present them as signs of victory and success.
At the time this didn’t go over well. In fact, a few years later, when some of us actually began to turn the Mir station into the first commercial space station, we got almost literally shot down. Rather than a welcome sign of success, our project was seen as a direct threat to the international space station. Now Mir is a very expensive aerospace-grade metal habitat for various sea creatures off the coast of Tahiti.
I tell these stories to set up the rather interesting and somewhat ironic situation in which I find myself today in terms of the ISS. You see, as someone who once fought to stop its being built, and yet also is a hands-on advocate of not throwing away perfectly good space facilities, I am now in the position of defending that same station I tried to get canceled against those who would knock it out of space and add it to the list of government-funded anchor points for sea anemones.
Not only do I believe we must dramatically increase the maximum use of the space station by any and all, it is my stand that it never, ever under any circumstances should be brought back down to Earth — period.
The debate over the current use and future fate of ISS cuts directly to the core of what we are going to do there. If space is a government program, then throw it away and let’s try and raise the money for the next one. If it is our intention to open space as a frontier to the people of Earth, then it is hugely important that we treat our first permanent outpost as a treasured resource, both figuratively and literally. Rather than a piece of space trash to be tossed into the sea, ISS is a symbol that we intend to stay, our first tiny island on this new ocean.
In the new ethos of the space frontier, when it comes to materials, supplies and facilities, we must insist on maximum utilization of anything we carry or find there and never throw away anything we can ever possibly reuse in any form. Thus ISS is not just valuable based on its current ability to provide leverage to open the frontier, but even at the end of its life as a human facility, if it is not turned into a human monument, it is still incredibly valuable as hardware and material at the top of the gravity well,
Making plans to deorbit ISS beyond emergency contingencies is not just irresponsible but short-sighted and self-defeating. Beyond where it fits in the frontier equation, the signal it sends to those in government who are going to be asked to support the next steps into the frontier is completely wrong and works diametrically against the efforts of anyone wanting to gain support for the next facility out into free space or further facility development investments on the Moon or Mars.
Why would any legislator, in the U.S. or a partner nation, support billions of dollars in funding for the next promised shiny object in space when the one we just built is being thrown away? It defies logic.
How could any honest NASA official look the U.S. taxpayers in the eye and ask for more money to develop an infrastructure in space that will allow us to permanently inhabit the Moon and Mars when they are going back to meetings at their headquarters to plan the deorbit of the first part of that infrastructure?
Instead, NASA needs to begin to plug the current ISS into a new agenda that is focused on how the U.S. government can support the American people in their quest to open, develop and settle space. This means an immediate focus on how to accelerate private-sector (academic and commercial) use of the station, removing roadblocks, increasing incentives and raising awareness. It also means showing how the ISS is not a roadblock or distraction but part of a new space infrastructure.
To move forward into the frontier we must use the ISS to its maximum capability to learn how to survive and thrive in space. Thus experimental focus should be in these two prime areas:
n What we need to know to survive in space — health, well-being and reproduction.
n What we need to thrive there — new products and ways to profit from the space environment.
If pursued vigorously and supported generously, these two areas of focus will transform not just the support ISS gets now, but how much support we can generate in the future for all of our plans, both public and private.
Then when the time comes, we either piece it out or push it up, way up into a storage orbit so time can be taken to decide on its fate.
This idea that “there can only be one” is silly, outdated and anti-frontier. We need to add more space stations to the mix including a gateway, gas station and free space research lab farther out in high lunar orbit, commercial facilities, new research labs and eventually human habitats in low Earth orbit and at the Lagrange points as part of an expanding infrastructure that includes the Moon and Mars. This simply will not happen if the word is out that the space community has just walked away from the taxpayers’ very generous gift to us so far.
Finally, NASA and its partners on ISS need to develop a legal and technical plan to either hand off the station over time at the end of its “useful” life (for them) or place it in a high storage orbit so that pioneers can utilize it or its components to leverage other activities.
As we enter the frontier era, new thinking is required. Interestingly, it fits well with the new ethos of recycling, reuse and repurposing that is sweeping the younger generation. In fact, right now I have a young team working on plans to go out millions of kilometers to harvest materials for use in space. Frankly, on its way up I don’t want our spacecraft to pass a multi-ton piece of burning aerospace-grade metal on its way down — just because some bureaucrat couldn’t handle the paperwork.
Keep ISS alive!
Rick Tumlinson is the co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, Deep Space Industries and Orbital Outfitters and founder of the EarthLight Foundation and New Worlds Institute.