The International Space Station (ISS) is one of the world’s most important laboratories and one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. It has played a crucial role in our understanding of the impact of living and working in space, and provides a vital stepping stone for studying nearby neighbors such as the moon and Mars.
Since launching in 1998, the space station has housed 230 brave astronauts from 18 nations, all while orbiting 250 miles above the Earth at 17,500 miles per hour.
But the ISS faces an uncertain future.
NASA is considering ending federal support of the space station. The agency’s proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year halts funding by 2025, and NASA leaders are scheming ways to turn over the operation of the ISS to private companies in the expectation of saving a few bucks.
It’s not a bad idea for government programs to look for ways to partner with the private sector. But that’s not what’s happening here; in fact, plans to prematurely end government funding of the ISS are penny-wise and pound-foolish. Defunding the space station would redirect money and opportunities to America’s most menacing adversaries and may ultimately cost taxpayers more in the long run.
In fact, NASA’s “plan” to end ISS funding isn’t a plan at all – it’s just a blind hope that an unknown private investor will step in before the largest single structure humans have ever put in space is seized by the Russian government or goes unused, creating a vacuum for China’s planned space station.
NASA officials working with the Trump administration say the funding cuts could generate greater commercial opportunities for the space station. Prospects for such commercial opportunities are dim, according to NASA Inspector General Paul Martin.
“We question whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business using the ISS independent of significant government funding,” said Martin. “The scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans.”
Martin believes any cost savings by slashing the roughly $3.5 billion the space station annually costs NASA would be lost because the agency would be forced to pay to use the ISS even after turning it over to a private business. “Consequently,” Martin said, “any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up 3 to 4 billion dollars beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking.”
Cutting federal funding of the space station would also leave several vital research goals unfinished. Martin estimates at least 10 of the major experiments taking place on the ISS won’t be concluded when funding is scheduled to end. Since these research projects are largely funded by American taxpayers, bailing out on the experiments before they are concluded would waste the millions of dollars that have already gone into the research. It also prevents us from receiving the knowledge and benefits the experiments would produce.
Turning the space station over to private hands also violates the spirit of cooperation that the U.S. has forged with Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency, who share the cost and responsibility of operating the space station with NASA and the federal government. According to Frank Slazer, the vice president of space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association, those international agreements make the idea of privatizing the space station ludicrous.
“It will be very hard to turn ISS into a truly commercial outpost because of the international agreements that the United States is involved in,” he said. “It’s inherently always going to be an international construct that requires U.S. government involvement and multinational cooperation.”
Not surprisingly, the idea of leaving the ISS with an uncertain future for no good reason isn’t proving popular on Capitol Hill. Even some of Congress’ most fiscally conservative members are speaking out against the wrongheaded proposal.
In a recent Senate hearing, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas remarked that hastily canceling the ISS program would cost jobs and waste billions of dollars, comparing eliminating space station funding to prematurely retiring the Space Shuttle – a move that has forced America astronauts to hitch rides to space on the tips of 1960s-era Russian rockets.
The budget hawk went so far as to label the people behind the scheme “numskulls.”
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, who served as a payload specialist on a Space Shuttle mission in 1986, also blasted the plan to end ISS funding.
“Abandoning this incredible orbiting laboratory where they are doing research when we are on the cusp of a new era of space exploration would be irresponsible at best and probably disastrous,” Nelson said.
The ISS remains vital to American research and space exploration objectives, and it’ll still be decades before a private company is prepared to manage the space station in a way that makes sense from an economic, international relations, national security or scientific standpoint.
Fortunately, Congress still has time to reject the ill-advised effort to end ISS funding. As Cruz pointed out to NASA and administration officials, “it will be Congress that is the final arbiter of how long ISS receives federal funding.”
For the sake of America’s space program and our scientific community, lawmakers should continue ISS funding well beyond 2025.
Jim Eltringham is a grassroots organizer with 15 years of experience working in center-right advocacy.