ISS’s Retirement May Be Postponed as U.S. Senate Is About to Review a Bill Prolonging Its Operation Until 2030
On August 1st, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation voted in favour of the Space Frontier Act, S. 3277 cosponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).
The pivotal concerns of the bill are the extension of the ISS service to 2030 and the amendments regarding the commercial space launches and the problem of space debris. Ultimately, the bill is yet to be approved by the full Senate. What can it change in America’s space operations if the Senate passes it? Considering the lawmakers expect the bill to go to the President’s desk before the term of the current Congress expires, it’s worth looking at.
Too Early for ISS to Call It a Day
Importantly, the bill requires the US government to continue supporting the International Space Station operations through 2030. It contrasts with the Trump Administration’s intentions to cease supporting the ISS in 2025, and by entering the “post-ISS” era, start paying to use commercial space stations while redirecting the spare money to other space exploration activities, such as Moon orbiting and landings. And we are talking about “spare” $3–4 billion that NASA spends on the ISS annually, which is “about half of NASA’s annual human spaceflight budget,” as stated by the Agency’s own report.
While the actual premise of passing the ISS and all other low Earth orbit activities to private commercial operators and saving money to continue exploring our celestial neighbours, like the Moon and Mars, sounds great, there are reasons to make the ISS work for the government a little longer.
In short, these reasons go down to the insufficiency of the remaining time for finishing the complex science regarding the long-term human spaceflight, and the inability of commercial contractors to commission their own space stations by 2025.
“As of February 2018, the Agency forecasts that research for at least 6 of 20 human health risks that require the ISS for testing and 4 of 40 technology gaps will not be completed by the end of FY 2024 when funding for the Station’s operation is scheduled to end,“ NASA’s report reads.
Considering the cornerstone role the ISS is playing in America’s and entire humanity’s advance into space, these forecasts are quite unfortunate. In this regard, the Agency highlighted three options as to what we should do now:
- To extend ISS operations way past 2025 and to continue using it as the on-orbit laboratory for human spaceflight research.
- To rely on “alternative testing methods,” specifically hinting at non-space-based ones, which might mean that if somebody will ever go to Mars, they will be trained in a kiddy pool with rubber ducks.
- Swallow it and accept the “higher levels of risk for future crewed deep space missions,” which can be a viable option only for the brave green men from a great game about space programs.
All in all, it seems like a tough choice where the option of continue foking out several billion dollars a year is arguably the best one.
However, there seems to be another reason for keeping the ISS on government’s payroll.
“Based on our audit work, we question the viability of NASA’s plans as outlined in its ISS Transition Report, particularly with regard to the feasibility of fostering increased commercial activity in low Earth orbit on the timetable proposed,” NASA’s report continues.
They have also noted that the “‘scant’ level of commercial activity on the ISS throughout the station’s history” is not giving us hope that there will be commercially viable space platforms somewhere near 2025, which is kind of disheartening.
So, with the ISS’s lifespan potentially extended, things might not look that bleak for space researchers now. However, it wasn’t the only thing that could bring some good news to the space industry, provided the bill passes the Senate hearings.
Commercial Use for Military Facilities and War on Space Debris
Aside from dealing with the ISS’s postponed retirement, the bill also got a few important amendments. In a word, they offer some things that potentially would make life easier for private companies operating in space. So, yes, it looks like the obvious need for Senator Ted Cruz to do anything likeable and scientifically reasonable has finally brought about some tangible results not just to the ISS but to the space industry in general.
The first amendment was proposed by Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, and implies that the Department of Transportation should seriously study the possibility of allowing private companies to use military facilities for commercial launches. According to the amendment, the study should also check the “feasibility of increasing the number of military installations” capable of being used in such way.
The second amendment proposed by Senator Gary Peters of Michigan, deals with orbital debris, or, to put it simply, space trash. In particular, it requires that the U.S. government should develop “consistent standards across federal agencies” in order to mitigate the risks associated with orbital debris.
“While the commercial space industry is continuing to grow, it is unable to meet its full potential due to outdated regulations and policies that can stifle innovation, restrict investment and drive the American launch sector and non-traditional space activities to foreign countries,” Ted Cruz said after the committee meeting.
Generally, the bill’s provisions echo Space Policy Directive signed by Donald Trump in May, and the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act approved by the House back in April.
Ted Cruz said he hopes it will go to the President’s desk “before the end of this Congress.” Considering the bill itself was a solid bipartisan effort, this looks quite likely.
It is somewhat sad to acknowledge the fact that the much heralded commercialization of low Earth orbit and the ISS will be postponed at least for another 5 years. After all, the “transition” of the ISS to commercial operations should’ve been the new page of humanity’s space exploration history.
On the other hand, it is certainly good to know that the US government actually may listen to the voice of reason, and doesn’t opt for the “kiddy pool” or “what could go wrong” options, which could have had drastic consequences either for our scientific progress or for the lives of our astronauts.
Anyway, the Space Frontier Act, S. 3277 still has to pass the Senate to come into force, and chances are everything may still change. Hopefully, such an initiative sponsored by America’s number-one adversary of polar bears and the existing coastlines is not a bad sign. Right?
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