Seven years after the United States ended its 30-year Space Shuttle program, the Trump administration is turning its sights on another space venture: the International Space Station.
According to a draft budget proposal obtained by The Verge on Wednesday, President Trump and his officials are preparing to pull the plug on ISS funding in 2025. Funding for the program, which first launched in 1998 and has been continuously occupied since November 2000, is protected until that point, thanks to the Obama administration, which approved an extension through 2024.
NASA spokespersons have so far been tight-lipped about the possibility of a 2025 end-date.
“NASA and the International Space Station partnership is committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space,” they told The Verge, adding that they could not comment “on any leaked or pre-decisional documents prior to the release of the President’s FY19 budget” on February 12.
The ISS currently costs about $3 and $4 billion a year to operate and maintain. Congress has been open about its desire to free up those dollars for other ventures, such as manned missions to Mars. Trump agrees: He echoed his Republican predecessors, including President George W. Bush, and expressed his wishes for a lunar base, which could effectively function as a launchpad for any future Mars missions, back in December.
“We ought to be aware that remaining on the ISS will come at a cost [beyond 2024]. That cost means trade-offs with other NASA priorities. What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?” Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of House Space Subcommittee, said during a hearing last March. “The longer we operate the ISS, the longer it will take to get to Mars.”
But abandoning the ISS too early would be a major setback for those ambitions, as it would hamper the ability of commercial spaceflight companies to develop an alternative program or test new science meant to assist future NASA missions.
Many of those companies, as well as some NASA officials, are hopeful the existing ISS program will be extended through 2028. That would allow commercial spaceflight businesses more time to develop their own technology to privatize the station and utilize its modules for low-earth orbit missions and research. It would also allow engineers to continue testing their technology on-board the ISS, a crucial step in commercial spaceflight development.
For now, executives are forced to confront the reality that their deadline may be much closer than that. Some had been forced to adjust course to meet that demand.
“We have to operate on the assumption that the ISS could be de-orbited in 2024… perhaps deorbited sometime after that,” said Amir Blachman, vice president of strategic development for Axiom Space, a commercial spaceflight company which aims to build its own commercial outpost to replace the ISS, in a January 2017 interview with Scientific American. “It changes the shape of our cash curve, but it doesn’t change the operability of the business. It’s still a highly profitable and very large business.”
Others are less confident in the private industry’s ability to have systems fully prepared by a 2024 deadline.
If the ISS program is shuttered, “we would lose our outpost in space,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, to lawmakers at a hearing in March last year. He added that continuing operations was “critical” to the future of commercial endeavors.
Ending funding to the ISS program in 2024 could also cost NASA an important operating base in which to carry out research for future missions to both the moon and Mars.
“It’s… wrong to assume that ISS and [future space] exploration are competing with each other. They’re really helping each other,” NASA associate administrator for human exploration Bill Gerstenmaier told The Verge in March 2017. “We’re working today on the space station to understand the physiological problems of being in microgravity on the human body. Those are not fully resolved yet.”
The Verge noted this week the possibility that shortening the ISS funding lifespan could curtail or altogether stop lower earth orbit activity (cargo trips to space stations and commercial passenger spaceflights, for example), recalling a similar scenario from 2011, when the Space Shuttle program was shuttered. “The Obama administration had canceled NASA’s initiative to return to the Moon… leaving the space agency without a way to get its astronauts into space,” reporter Loren Grush wrote.
The expectation, Grush explained, was for commercial spaceflight operators to step in and take over where the Shuttle program left off. But those plans stalled quickly: private companies like SpaceX and Boeing simply weren’t prepared to take up the work on such short notice.
Both SpaceX and Boeing have made strides in the six years since then: Boeing has developed its CST-100 Starliner and begun making plans to utilize the seven-person crew capsule to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS or future commercial outposts. In 2014, SpaceX announced its Dragon 2 capsule had been selected by NASA to do the same.
But cutting an important lifeline like the ISS just as commercial spaceflight is getting to its feet would deal an unnecessary blow and slow those efforts once more.
“Applications with strong market potential are emerging,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, said during a March 2017 congressional hearing. “Abandoning the ISS too soon will most certainly guarantee failure.”
The administration is mulling the possibility of a partnership with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, to construct a replacement for the ISS called Deep Space Gateway. According to Popular Mechanics, officials from the two agencies and their current ISS collaborators — Europe, Japan, and Canada — gathered in Tokyo over the weekend to hold closed-door meetings on the subject, with the hopes that it would be launched into orbit sometime in the 2020s. However, the specifics of the design and international terms of agreement are still up in the air, as Roscosmos was reportedly “late [in] embracing the project.”
In the meantime, China has made moves to develop its own space program beyond its current capabilities.
“The heart of investments [is] going to be in the normal run of the mill things,” Jim Head, professor of planetary geosciences at Brown University, told Axios on Friday. But its larger goals, like the United States, include a trip to the far side of the moon to collect samples.
“Beyond the implications for scientific research, the mission would enhance China’s international profile and show the world how far they’ve come,” Axios wrote, quoting Notre Dame engineering professor Clive Neal.