After 20 years of service, the Space Station flies into an uncertain future

 After 20 years of service, the Space Station flies into an uncertain future

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The essentially complete International Space Station in 2010, as seen by space shuttle Atlantis.

Enlarge / The essentially complete International Space Station in 2010, as seen by space shuttle Atlantis.
NASA

The Cold War had been concluded for less than a decade when NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and two Russian cosmonauts, Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko, crammed themselves into a Soyuz spacecraft and blasted into orbit on Halloween, 20 years ago.

Two days later their small spacecraft docked with the International Space Station, then a fraction of the size it is today. Their arrival would herald the beginning of what has since become 20 years of continuous habitation of the laboratory that NASA, leading an international partnership, would continue to build for another decade.

Born of a desire to smooth geopolitical tensions in the aftermath of the great conflict between the United States and Soviet Union, the space station partnership has more or less succeeded—the station has remained inhabited despite the space shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, and later, nearly a decade of no US space transportation. NASA, Roscosmos, and the European, Japanese, and Canadian partners have been able to rely on one another.

Not that it has been easy. Tensions have existed from those very first moments on the station. Shepherd, who would serve as the first ISS commander over his more experienced cosmonaut counterparts, wanted to nickname the station “Alpha.” He had support for this from Krikalev, but some Russian space officials believed their earlier, Mir space station, had earned that honor. The new station, they believed, ought to be named “Beta.” NASA, too, had not signed off on this designation.

Nevertheless, Shepherd pressed ahead. He liked that Alpha was the first letter of the Greek alphabet, neither American nor Russian. So on the crew’s first day aboard the station, during a space-to-ground call with NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, Shepherd said over the public loop, “The first expedition on the space station requests permission to take the radio call sign Alpha.”

Goldin was not expecting this, and he spoke away from the microphone for a few moments, conferring with others on the ground. Then he came back and said the name “Station Alpha” was authorized for the duration of Shepherd’s nearly four-month expedition.

This suited the crew, and Shepherd replied, “Out, from Space Station Alpha.” Since then, more than five dozen other crews have rotated onto the International Space Station, most recently Expedition 63, which launched in mid-October. Always, in the two decades since, there have been at least two humans on board.

Days before the most recent launch to the space station from Kazakhstan, the mission’s NASA crew member, Kate Rubins, addressed this anniversary in the crew’s final pre-flight news conference.

“I think the International Space Station is one of the most incredible engineering achievements in human history,” she said. “It is quite a marvel to see such a giant machine that was built entirely by humans and flown off the surface of Earth still persists in space 20 years later.”

The station is unique in that no one has ever built such a large spacecraft in orbit, nor flown it so long. In that sense, it tests the limits of what is possible every day, and it is worth thinking about the achievements of the station. These go far beyond geopolitics and range from science to exploration to the commercialization of space. And yet there is growing concern that the space station may be retired before there is a replacement, soon ending our two-decades in orbit. Moreover, we could fritter away much of the value we have gained from such an outpost.

“This is critically important,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine about planning for a future in low-Earth orbit. “And it’s something that never gets funded.”

What station has done

The International Space Station has not been cheap. Depending on how one counts the beans—for example, how much of the space shuttle budget should be included, considering the shuttle was used almost exclusively to build ISS in the 2000s? NASA has spent between $100 billion and $150 billion to assemble and maintain the station since construction began nearly three decades ago. However, NASA, the nation, and the world has received a lot in return for their investment.

First of all, the International Space Station has lived up to its name. In addition to providing a valuable diplomatic link between Russia and the United States at a time of increasing tensions, the orbiting laboratory has opened space to much of the world.

NASA’s program manager for the station, Joel Montalbano, told Ars that the ISS had reached 108 countries over its lifetime, either through flying astronauts, conducting research that originated there, or through outreach events.

“We’ve been able to stay out of politics, and work on a physics-based philosophy,” he said. “It’s hard, and it’s challenging working with different cultures, and time changes. But it sets a good example for the rest of the world.”

Prior to the space station, NASA astronauts had mostly spent 10-day, or two-week increments in space during shuttle missions. Now, astronauts regularly fly six-month rotations. Scott Kelly has flown 11 months, while Peggy Whitson, Jessica Meir, and Drew Morgan have all spent nine or more months in space. This allowed scientists and physicians on Earth to study how longer durations in microgravity affect human physiology.

The good news is that, as humans go beyond six months in space, scientists are not finding any big surprises or showstoppers. Montalbano said new actions needed to accommodate people on such missions are relatively straightforward—perhaps giving long-duration crew members an extra day off from time to time, and making sure their family members and loved ones back on Earth are being well taken care of. This type of research is essential before sending astronauts on longer missions deeper into the Solar System, to places such as Mars.

The space station is only now hitting its stride on scientific research, as well. The orbiting laboratory offers a resource very difficult to obtain on Earth: microgravity. For its first decade, little time was available for science, as much of the work on station was devoted to constructing and maintaining the facility. Then, after its substantial completion in 2010, the space shuttle stopped flying, so NASA was limited mostly to about two crew members on station at a time by Russian spacecraft.

The advent of the commercial crew program changes this. With each mission flown by SpaceX’s Crew Dragon vehicle, NASA will be able to send four people, instead of three. This fourth person’s time will be almost completely devoted to scientific research. This will allow the amount of “astronaut time” devoted to scientific research to double, from 35 hours per week to 70.

Finally, the station has provided a valuable platform for US companies to extend their reach into low-Earth orbit. SpaceX, Northrop Grumman, and Boeing have been able to develop cargo and crew transportation systems to orbit, stimulating their spaceflight activities. And companies such as Made in Space, Nanoracks, and a host of other firms have benefited from being able to test manufacturing and other activities in microgravity without having to go through the likely insurmountable hurdle of developing their own miniature space stations.

To the extent that commercial space is a rising industry in the United States, a lot of this activity can be traced in one way or another to the International Space Station.

The future

So, what happens now?

In January, 2018, the Trump Administration kicked off the discussion about the space station’s future by proposing that “direct” support for the orbiting laboratory would end in 2025. At that time, the White House said that NASA should transition to “commercial provision of low-Earth orbit capabilities.”

This notion immediately met pushback from Congress, particularly members from states such as Texas and Florida which benefit from space station-related jobs. As a result, while there is talk about commercial companies taking over in low-Earth orbit some time in the 2020s (possibly through the construction of independent stations), the future is murky and there is no firm plan.

In recent months, Bridenstine has been sounding the alarm about this. “There’s going to come a day when the ISS is going to end,” he said. “We really really love the ISS. But we do have to think about the fact that 20 years is a long time. We have to be able to be making the investments today so that we don’t have a gap in low-Earth orbit.”

The gap he mentions refers to a historical problem NASA has had. After the final Apollo mission in 1975, NASA had no capability to get its astronauts into space until the first space shuttle mission six years later. Then, after the shuttle retired, NASA went nine years without this capability until the successful Crew Dragon flight in May of this year.

Looking ahead, NASA appears set with transportation into space, thanks to Crew Dragon, Boeing’s Starliner, and potentially its Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System rocket. But without a destination in low-Earth orbit, there’s not really anywhere for these vehicles to go except the Moon. Bridenstine, as well as most others in the space industry, believe it is vital to the future of the US space enterprise that the country have a vibrant low-Earth orbit economy. This region near Earth is seen as the stepping stone to exploration deeper into space.

As such, Bridenstine and the White House have been asking for $150 million a year to spur the development of commercial successors to the International Space Station. This money would fund studies and help interested companies begin to develop their own hardware. However, in fiscal year 2020, NASA only received $15 million from Congress. A similar request in fiscal year 2021 may only receive that much funding again.

This tepid response suggests that Congress would prefer to fly the station for as long as possible. And this could happen. Montalbano said the ISS program can support flying the station through 2030, at least.

“While today the ISS is agreed to fly through 2024, from an engineering standpoint we can go further than that,” he said. “We’ve looked through 2028 and there is no issue. There is nothing magical about that, and I feel from an engineering standpoint we can go past 2028.”

The problem is that operating and maintaining the aging station, keeping it supplied, and flying astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit remains expensive. The program costs NASA about $4 billion a year. If the space agency ever wants to extend the sphere of human activity beyond low-Earth orbit toward the Moon, it could really use some of that funding. So if commercial companies are ready to take over low-Earth orbit, freeing NASA to look further, then that is something Bridenstine is ready to embrace.

But are the commercial companies ready? No one really knows.

Commercial alternatives?

In April, 2016, a Falcon 9 rocket launched a supply mission to the space station. Among the cargo carried by the Dragon spacecraft was a 1.4 ton module that would be installed on the ISS that summer. It expanded to a diameter of 4 meters, and this Bigelow Expandable Activity Module, or BEAM, has since been used to test the potential for privately developed, inflatable habitats in space.

The founder of Bigelow Aerospace, Bob Bigelow, announced in February 2018 that he was self-funding a study to assess the potential of commercial activity for such stations in low-Earth orbit. During a phone call with reporters, Bigelow said he was not sure how many people would be interested in orbital tourism, how many companies would be willing to pay millions of dollars to conduct research, or whether countries without space programs would avail themselves of private space stations. But he wanted to find out.

It should perhaps tell us something that Bigelow never publicly released the results of that study. This past spring, he effectively shuttered his space company.

This is one of the real problems with the “commercialization” of low-Earth orbit and private space stations. No one is quite sure about the potential for activity that is not paid for, or heavily subsidized by, a governmental agency. Moreover, private companies say the political uncertainty about how long the International Space Station will continue to fly does not help, either.

“I’m growing increasingly concerned about NASA’s plans to ensure we do not have a space station gap,” said Jeff Manber, co-founder of Nanoracks, an in-space services company. “I know there’s a strong push to have the station budgeted through 2030, and that’s lovely. However the station is a complex technology wonder that’s 20 years old, and the hardware is even older. We need to start planning now, and take advantage of American commercial capabilities.”

NASA had been planning two separate tracks to stimulate commercial space station development. One allowed a commercial company to start by building a module attached to the ISS, and use power, communications, and other resources from the station while developing technology. A separate track called for development of a “free-flyer” concept, but NASA has since decided to put this on hold. Manber said this decision stunts the potential for the private sector to innovate in low-Earth orbit.

For now, at least, NASA is moving forward only with a commercially developed module to be attached to the space station. In January, the agency awarded a $140 million contract to Axiom Space—a company co-founded by former ISS Program Manager Michael Suffredini—to attach a commercial station to the front of the space station. This module, developed primarily with private funding, is scheduled to launch in 2024, said Matt Ondler, chief technology officer of Axiom. It would house private visitors to the station. Axiom has so far raised about $20 million, and it’s about to close on a “very large” Series B round of funding.

Axiom plans to launch two other modules before a fourth one, presently scheduled to fly in 2028, that would carry a large solar array and be capable of flying in orbit independent of the ISS. The other modules could then, potentially, separate from the International Space Station to form a new vehicle.

Asked about concerns regarding the potential size of a commercial market—while NASA is interested in being a tenant of private space stations, it does not intend to pay the bulk of their costs—Ondler said he sees the earliest market coming from private astronauts. This would include both space tourists as well as professional astronauts from countries without their own launch capabilities. Eventually, he expects that manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, fiber optic cables, or other technologies in microgravity will pay the lion’s share of the bills.

“Commercial astronauts are important early on, but the manufacturing piece will outpace it vastly in the future,” Ondler said.

He encouraged NASA and policymakers to continue to find ways to support commercial stations and to increase access to NASA facilities such as the Neutral Buoyancy Lab where private astronauts can train for microgravity activities. Finally, he said, Axiom fully supports flying the ISS through 2028.

The legacy

NASA and Russia must still finalize a plan for bringing the large ISS safely back into Earth’s atmosphere. But what does seem clear is that whenever the ISS reaches the end of its days, it will have left an enduring legacy on global spaceflight efforts. With this program, for the first time, many of the world’s most developed countries came together in a meaningful, long-term spaceflight enterprise.

But should it be considered progress? After all, in the 1960s and 1970s, NASA sent humans to the Moon. With the space station, for the last 20 years, astronauts and cosmonauts have remained within the confines of a few hundred kilometers above our planet’s surface.

Robert Pearlman, a space historian and co-author of Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space, said ISS should be recognized as an important step after Apollo. The former was a crash course in reaching a destination. The space station, rather, required skills that would lead to an enduring mission.

“In some ways, the International Space Station has represented a greater engineering feat than the Apollo Moon landings or any previous effort in space,” he said. “Building and operating the space station over the past 20 years has required an unprecedented level of international collaboration, even at times when the partner nations were at odds with each other over unrelated earthly matters. In addition, designing critical systems to not just last, but perform reliably for two decades has presented a challenge that is perhaps unique to the ISS experience.”

NASA succeeded in reaching the Moon, but for long-term deep space programs there is much more that needs to be done, and the station has provided a platform for this. In addition to studying astronaut health, work on the ISS has led to maturing the art of spacewalking, valuable experience for crews and ground support teams maintaining complex machinery off-Earth, and development of closed-loop life support systems.

The space station has also left one other important legacy for the next generation of explorers, Pearlman said. They are growing up with the expectation that it’s perfectly natural for humans to live in space and that this should be the norm going forward.

“Due to the advent of social media and other technologies, the ISS has also offered the public an unmatched opportunity to participate in active space missions, both virtually and, for the select few, as spaceflight participants,” he said. “For the first time in history, the public was not limited to only watching what was happening, but now interacting with the crew and the science being conducted on board on a regular occurrence. This may ultimately be the space station’s greatest contribution to the future of space exploration.”

The space station, then, should be humanity’s first sustainable step toward the cosmos that surrounds us. But to make it so, there must be an encore.