Trump wants NASA out of the ISS operations business. Easier said than done.

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This article originally appeared in the June 25, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Since President Trump’s 2019 budget called for ending International Space Station funding in 2025, Congress held hearings, NASA published an ISS Transition Report and U.S. companies advertised plans for new outposts. Still, it’s not clear how that transition will occur, a fact highlighted by the recent confusion over NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s comments to The Washington Post about companies taking over ISS operations. For clues on the space station’s current status and the transition ahead, SpaceNews spoke with Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA headquarters.

Sam Scimemi, Director of NASA's International Space Station Division. Credit: NASA via Flickr
Sam Scimemi, Director of NASA’s International Space Station Division. Credit: NASA via Flickr

ISS was built over many years. Are there parts of the structure that require more maintenance and other parts that require less?

We are getting a lot of good run time on all our systems. Our electrical power systems have generally performed quite well and are performing beyond their mean time between failures. Some of our life support systems have had not as much luck. However, other parts of our life support systems like the oxygen generation system has pretty much performed as it was designed. Some parts are doing better than expected other parts are not doing as well as expected.

It is all certified through 2024 at least. We’ve been working with international partners to have everything certified all the way to 2028. It doesn’t mean every single nut and bolt is certified that way. A lot of systems can be replaced along the way. Not everything was designed to last that long.

People talk about dismantling ISS and keeping pieces of it? Is that possible?

It’s certainly possible. Some people have been looking at that. We have not looked at a specific configuration. But if you’ve followed the assembly, we’ve reconfigured station many times. Some elements weren’t launched until 2009, 2010, 2011. You add 30 years to that and some parts of station could last all the way to the year 2040. There will be a lot of life left in any of these elements in the next decade.

This is called out in the ISS Transition Report. We talk about possible futures in low Earth orbit (LEO): continue station the way it is; continue station with private industry elements; reconfigure station with private-industry elements along with elements that already exist or new free flight elements. All those things are open right now.

Is it important to NASA to ensure there’s no gap in human presence in LEO?

Have you read the ISS Transition Report? We have several principles for ISS transition in LEO. One is continuity in human spaceflight. It means we have continuity in our mission. We expect to have continual access to LEO. But for deep space, if we go to the moon, we don’t expect to have access all that often, maybe once a year. Having a human spaceflight program only once a year is probably not a sustainable thing based on NASA’s requirements and the requirements of all of our international partners on station. We think the leadership aspect is important for the continuity, not only for the mission but also for the industrial base, having an industrial base that is able to build rockets, build crew capsules, cargo vehicles, on-orbit spacecraft. It’s important that we also keep continuity in our industrial base and knowledge here on the ground in order to continue spaceflight across multiple decades.

What else should people know about the transition from ISS to something else in LEO whether it happens in 2024, 2028 or some other time?

There are many different futures possible. What’s important to NASA and the U.S. government are: the continuity of human spaceflight, leadership of the United States in human spaceflight not only in LEO but also for exploration, long-term research and astronaut opportunities. Reducing cost is also important. We will pursue that with these public private partnerships, for instance. All those are important to us. They all stem from the first two: continuity of human spaceflight and the leadership in human spaceflight.

The Bigelow Beam module was deployed on ISS in 2016. How has that turned out?

The original agreement was for expanding it, making sure it worked and two years of collecting data, measuring the radiation environment and the microbe environment and atmospheric environment, the outgas and those things. Then we modified the agreement with Bigelow to use it as a storage closet, a place for the astronauts to put things in. It’s worked out well.

At the Space Symposium, companies presented plans for private space stations. They discussed having several platforms in LEO. Do you envision that?

It is easy to envision the supply. We have in this country more supply than customers. What really needs to be worked on is the development of the demand. Where is all this demand coming from? Is the demand still just NASA? A large part of what we do with the National Lab and CASIS is try to build the demand on the research and technology development side to have customers for all this supply. I understand some of these companies also want to fly tourists. That’s also addressed in the report. In order to sustain this industry, look at the transportation side, $1.7 million, that is going to be hard to maintain just on a tourist’s budget. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done but it may take a little more time for the cost of transportation to come down quite a bit so people’s business models match their expectations.

Is the cost of transportation coming down?

For crew it is probably too early for that. Commercial crew hasn’t even flown yet. On our side it is a little bit premature to have a definitive trend yet.

Once there is more demand, would that lead to lower cost transportation?

That is the theory of free market principles. In human spaceflight it is not truly an open market. It is mostly government-sponsored. Both here in this country and in Russia and China. It is a constrained market. If a U.S. company comes up with a crew seat price, if China or Russia wants that business, since they are government organizations, they will probably just undercut that price. Not to say that they would but that is how things work in the real world. When we talk about ISS transition and our leadership position, those considerations will have to be factored in.

You’ve said ISS is hitting its stride. How so?

Beginning last year, we started to see a real interest in utilizing ISS from private industry like big pharmaceutical companies, consumer products companies and especially other government agencies like the National Institutes of Health. They have ramped up their utilization of ISS. On the NASA side, for our exploration research program, we are starting to knock out some of the risks in human spaceflight, like bone and muscle loss mitigation strategies. Those risks are starting to come down now as we work through all that research. And we are starting to fly some of our life support technology systems for testing. That will be coming online in the next few years as well. We are hitting all cylinders.

You’ve also said ISS hasn’t reached its full potential. What more could be done?

On the exploration side, there is still more work to be done at integrating across all of our disciplines, across operations, across system demonstrations, across human health and performance, integrating all of those together in a simulation of a long-duration deep space exploration activity on ISS. On the other side, there is still room for growth on the National Lab side on external users. There is still a lot of growth left in that area as far as volume.

Astronaut Ricky Arnold exits the Quest airlock June 14, beginning the sixth spacewalk of 2018. Credit: @OLEGMKS via Twitter
Astronaut Ricky Arnold exits the Quest airlock June 14, beginning the sixth spacewalk of 2018. Credit: @OLEGMKS via Twitter

There’s a Washington Post article about NASA talking with a commercial consortium about taking over ISS operations. What does that mean?

Our intention is to be able to turn over day-to-day operations of the ISS to private industry by the middle of the next decade. Within that, there could be partnerships between companies that actually operate the ISS based on a particular business plan that they all have.

As far as NASA’s direct plan, our plan is to turn over the day-to-day operations to private industry to be able to operate modules in space, to be able to do all the planning, training, real-time operations, sustainment, engineering. NASA could be just one of many customers for LEO.

What does it cost to maintain the space station annually?

Its budget is separated into operations, use or research and transportation. The transportation is the largest part of the ISS budget. It is just over half of the budget. The budget this year was about $1.7 billion just for transportation, cargo and crew. The other part of it is operations and utilization.

I have a hard time imaging any industry consortium paying the cost of ISS operations and maintenance. Would an industry consortium have to do that?

NASA plans to pay for what we want in LEO. We are going to pay for our research, pay for our astronaut training, pay for having astronauts in orbit. We’ll pay for all the things that are important to NASA, including international partnerships. We are encouraging private industry to go find other long-term customers for the ISS or for other platforms.

I understand private operations would cost less but there are astronauts onboard. It seems risky to turn over ISS operations.

This transition is going to take place over many years. We are not going to throw one big switch and all the sudden NASA civil servants aren’t working and it’s all private industry. 2025 is several years from now. We have plenty of time and our industrial base has got much more experience than it used to have. Before, we had only a small number of companies that knew anything about spaceflight. Now, it’s a lot larger number with a lot of new entrants.

Our intention is to build up the knowledge base and the industrial base so private industry could take over large parts of what NASA does. That doesn’t mean NASA just walks away. In the International Space Station Transition Report, we talk about only transitioning those things that make sense. We are only going to transition the things industry, NASA and our stakeholders are comfortable transitioning.

Some things we are probably not going to transition like crew health and safety. We probably are not going to transition our life support system work or [extravehicular activities]. We’ll keep that in the government. Of course, we have yet to work through what all those things are.