When did we stop thinking big? Save the International Space Station

When did we stop thinking big? Save the International Space Station
© Getty Images

The International Space Station (ISS) will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year and pass an amazing 18 years of continuous occupation by crew from 18 nations. However, its future is in danger at the time when it can contribute the most to preparing for long duration, deep-space human missions, and we need to complete important long-term scientific and medical experiments.

Current law would either privatize NASA’s operations on ISS by 2025, or result in the destruction of the station.

Our human spaceflight laboratory is now reaching its peak scientific capabilities, and it would be a policy failure to schedule an end to consistent government funding of ISS. NASA’s FY 2019 budget proposal includes plans to end funding for the International Space Station by 2025 or transferring our valuable taxpayer investment to a private U.S. or international company or consortium. Conservatives, like Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzUp next in the culture wars: Adding women to the draft Biden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet 228 Republican lawmakers urge Supreme Court to overrule Roe v. Wade MORE (R-Texas) have opposed this plan.


The total investment by the U.S. alone in ISS exceeds many tens of billions of dollars, and while the case for privatizing it or destroying it to save a few billion dollars a year towards lunar exploration has an allure, it would be false economy to end or diminish the role of ISS before the U.S. is actually proceeding to the moon. Congress would be better advised to add the necessary funding to continue ISS operations as well as to explore the moon.  Further, NASA should work to add as new ISS partners India, South Korea and United Arab Emirates, which would help reduce U.S. shared costs.

We must not repeat the mistake that was made by cancelling the space shuttles before commercial launch services were ready — where we lost a massive talent and knowledge base, as well as the security of being able to launch American astronauts on American rockets for what may approach a decade. Maintaining the cadence of human space flights to ISS is essential until lunar explorations are actually scheduled to begin.

In addition to the incredible science advancements, ISS is a tremendous example of how we work together with the international community. The station also serves as an element of public and cultural diplomacy, showing the best of America and our international partners to the world, as well as inspiring the next generation to help build our future in high technology and space exploration. Its continued presence gains even more importance as China prepares to build their space station in the early 2020s. The U.S. must not let China be the only power with an operational space station.

It is essential that privatization or an end to the ISS program is not tied to a date, but is based on a set of criteria that enables a smooth transition to commercial LEO operations.

Potential criteria would include:

  • An established cadence of crewed launches to cis-lunar space or the lunar surface.
  • The existence of a U.S.-led international coalition for exploring cis-lunar space
  • A U.S. follow-on LEO platform being operational, so commercial and NASA activity can smoothly transition operations to a new station.

Science is endangered by any uncertainties about the future operation or survival of the station, and we could witness valuable experiments being cancelled long before 2025, because complex and expensive experiments often take years to develop and to operate once launched.

Cruz is correct in making the case that “prematurely cancelling NASA programs for political reasons costs jobs and wastes billions of dollars,” and he and many members of Congress from both parties support its continued, NASA-funded operation until at least 2028.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, Cruz even chaired a hearing on the “Future of the International Space Station,” which investigated the realities of destroying or privatizing ISS.

While there is great promise for the commercialization and industrialization of space, the reality is that the industry is not yet large enough to support ISS, and that could endanger an ISS dependent on commercial contracts. In fact, NASA’s Inspector General, Paul Martin, testified to Cruz’s subcommittee that, “the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency’s current plans. Any assumption that ending direct federal funding frees up $3-4 billion beginning in 2025 to use on other NASA exploration initiatives is wishful thinking.”

Looking forward, perhaps the highest and best use of ISS is to simulate deep space missions, such as Martian round-trips. The 2015-2016 “year in space” mission whereby U.S astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko spent nearly a year on ISS yielded vital physiological data for future deep space missions, however NASA and our ISS partners must push the envelope a lot further if a mission to Mars will realistically happen in the early 2030s. That would require developing “near-closed-loop” life support systems, testing kilowatt-class solar electric propulsion, testing transit habitats, as well as conducting another year in space to validate solutions to the harmful effects experienced by Kelly and Kornienko. Without ISS, such missions could be impossible, as NASA’s planned Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway would not be continuously occupied.

It is essential that Congress and U.S. space policy affirmatively support full funding for ISS through 2028, or until the above criteria have been met.

Art Harman is the director of the Coalition to Save Manned Space Exploration, and served as the legislative director and space advisor for Rep. Steve StockmanStephen (Steve) Ernest StockmanPardon talk intensifies as Trump approaches final 24 hours in office GOP senator on Trump pardons: 'It is legal, it is constitutional, but I think it's a misuse of the power' Nothing becomes Donald Trump's presidency like his leaving it MORE (R-Texas) in the 113th Congress. Harman studied foreign policy at the Institute of World Politics.