ISS: Use It, Don’t Lose It

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Two roads diverge for the international space station (ISS). The easy one leads to certain failure. The other offers discomfort, risk and the possibility of success beyond our wildest imaginings.

You may be surprised that the choice isn’t whether or not the operational life of ISS should be extended beyond 2016. But picking the right road answers that question decisively.

Why did the governments of 17 great nations invest so many billions of dollars and so many years in building the international space station? I went and looked at all their Web sites and found remarkable similarity expressed in dramatically different ways. Boiling it all down, I get five broadly shared goals for the ISS:

  • space technology development;
  • science;
  • stimulate commercial activity in low Earth orbit;
  • international cooperation; and
  • inspiration of youth.

Even the most enthusiastic supporter of the program will have to admit that thus far we’ve done a pretty bad job of meeting these goals. Many years ago a decision was made to reduce risk by severely limiting the use of new technology, so we didn’t actually do that much technology development. Science budgets for the ISS have been tiny so far. In spite of numerous false starts by other partners, only the Russians have conducted significant commercial activity on the station. International cooperation has been the program’s area of greatest success, yet even there few observers would give better than a barely passing grade. Finally, inspiration of our young people is an oft-stated goal, yet more young people are inspired by SpaceShipOne.

Clearly things have not gone well, at least not so far.

The heart of the problem is the whole way the effort is organized. A labyrinth of international agreements and domestic political considerations has led us down the well-trodden path to failure. If we are unwilling to confront parochial political concerns and renegotiate dysfunctional international agreements, we might as well deorbit the station right now. The argument that we are obligated to continue by our prior agreements makes no sense because a financial settlement among countries would clearly cost much less for all concerned and better serve all five major goals.

The alternative is change, not just a change of rhetoric, but real change requiring real leadership, real sacrifice and real risk. The 17 nations involved could sit down and create a unified management, independent of political control, with clear goals and a limited, but assured, level of funding. They could consciously sacrifice thousands of safe, government-funded jobs left over from the 20th century, embrace competition, unleash the power of free enterprise and create millions of new 21st century, private sector jobs.

There is so much to gain. Rather than being a footnote to history, the ISS would serve as a pathfinder to the future. It would serve as a hub and a market for commercial transportation services, helping jumpstart a struggling infant industry. Its labs would be abuzz with both government and private research that offer the possibility of making life better for billions of people. A new way for countries to cooperate would promote peace on Earth. Commercial expansions would test and employ new technologies. And, young people would go outside at night and look up to find the passing light from humanity’s first community in space.

If we choose this path, the question of extending the life of the station beyond 2016, or even beyond 2020, will be asked in an entirely different context. With substantial technological, scientific, economic, international and inspirational returns, extension and reutilization of at least part of the ISS becomes a fait accompli.

Somebody, somewhere, ages and ages hence, shall be telling the story of the ISS. We can decide in the here and now if the story will end in failure, or with success.

Bob Werb is co-founder and chairman of the board of the Space Frontier Foundation.