The International Space Station, by any measure, has been a triumph for the scientific discoveries and the technological innovations that it has given birth to. The ISS has also proven to be a model for international cooperation in space that NASA would like to see replicated for the “return to the moon” program.
However, noting that all good things must come to an end, the space agency is already entertaining commercial replacements for the ISS. Current thinking proposes that a company (likely several) would build its own space station, and NASA would become an anchor customer.
NASA has solicited concepts for commercial space station designs from several companies. The space agency has just released the results from a dozen companies.
One of the more interesting concepts comes from Blue Origin, the company owned by Jeff Bezos. It involves a habitat that is attached to the upper stage of its New Glenn orbital rocket with a power module on the other end.
On the other hand, Space Adventures, a company that has arranged for rides to the ISS for paying customers on Russian Soyuz rockets, envisions taking over the ISS and retrofitting it to become a commercial space station. The company suggests that the new commercial ISS would provide the following services:
- Government crew and science programs
- Private astronauts and media
- In-space manufacturing and satellite-related services
NASA would like to see commercialization of low-Earth orbit happen in time for it to close the International Space Station by 2025. The space agency currently spends about $2 billion a year to maintain the orbiting laboratory. Much of that money could be spent instead on ramping up the Artemis back to the moon program, with the first human mission scheduled to happen in 2024 and a lunar base to start in 2028. There are two flies in that ointment, however.
First, it is not certain that a private firm could get a commercial space station operational by the mid-2020s. Thus, there is a real prospect of having no human presence in low-Earth orbit if the ISS is decommissioned and a commercial replacement is not yet ready by then.
Second, because of the first fear, Congress is unlikely to approve decommissioning the ISS in the mid-2020s. The latest NASA Authorization Bill extends the space station’s life to 2028. A new bill is pending in the Senate that would select an end date for the orbiting lab in 2030.
Congress’ eagerness to keep the ISS running as long as possible is understandable. America lost its ability to send astronauts into space when the space shuttle orbiters were retired in 2011. The commercial replacement vehicles, for a variety of reasons, will not be ready until late 2019 at the earliest, and more likely in 2020. Congress is not anxious to continue the United States’ dependence on foreign powers to facilitate our progress in space.
The ISS’ popularity in Congress is a curious turn on how the idea of a space station was received in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Space Station Freedom, as the project was called then, endured not just one by two near-death experiences when it came within a single vote of being cancelled in the House. A coalition of liberal Democrats and budget hawk Republicans were not enthusiastic to see the project funded to fruition.
Ironically, President Clinton saved the space station, ordering a redesign, renaming it the International Space Station, and bringing on Russia as a full partner. The new, diplomatic purpose was enough to get the project approved and built.
Now, as a new decade of the 21st century nears, the scientific and technological rationales for people living and working in low-Earth orbit is clear. Now, NASA has the tricky task of transitioning from a government-centric model to one that favors the private sector, while moving on to explore the moon, Mars, and beyond.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.