NASA inspector general weighs in on ISS’s future


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The inspector general for NASA, Paul Martin, is testifying today before Congress on ISS. His prepared statement [pdf] includes several blunt assessements concerning the station’s future.

First and most important, he has doubts that transitioning the station to private ownership will work.

[I]t is questionable whether a sufficient business case exists under which private companies can create a self-sustaining and profit-making business independent of significant Government funding. In particular, it is unlikely that a private entity or entities would assume the Station’s annual operating costs, currently projected at $1.2 billion in 2024. Such a business case requires robust demand for commercial market activities such as space tourism, satellite servicing, manufacturing of goods, and research and development, all of which have yet to materialize.

Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the Station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the Agency’s current plan. This concern is illustrated by NASA’s limited success in stimulating non-NASA activity aboard the Station through the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. (CASIS). Established in 2011 to facilitate use of the ISS by commercial companies, academia, and other Government and non-Government actors for their research or commercial purposes, CASIS’s efforts have fallen short of expectations. Apart from these privatization challenges, the amount of cost savings NASA may realize through commercialization of the ISS may be less than expected given that significant expenditures – particularly in crew and cargo transportation and civil servant costs – will likely continue even if many low Earth orbit activities transition to a privatized ISS or another commercial platform.

Personally, I do not think a government official is the best person to ask when one is trying to decide if a certain venture will be profitable. What the heck does the NASA inspector general know about “whether a sufficient business case” for ISS exists?

At the same time, ISS was designed by the government, which makes it ungodly expensive to operate. This high cost is likely the main reason commercial companies have shown little interest in taking over its full operation.

Second, the inspector general noted that 23% of this high cost is covered by the station’s partners, the continuing support of which past 2024 is very questionable. Moreover, the push to build the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) by both Russia, Europe, and NASA’s big contractors (Boeing and Lockheed Martin) will leave little room in NASA’s budget for ISS.

The participation of NASA’s other current international partners is also unsettled at this time given their desire to consider exploration missions beyond the ISS. For example, ESA has announced its intent to partner with NASA on the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and other lunar activities. ESA is also working with the Chinese Space Agency to fly European astronauts on the Chinese space station planned for operation in 2022. Given that NASA’s current international partners cover 23 percent of the Station’s shared annual costs, the loss of one or more of these space agencies could have a significant impact on NASA’s cost to extend ISS operations beyond 2024.

Russia’s modules also provide ISS its lift capability to keep it in orbit. Should Russia undock these modules for its own station, something they have actually considered, ISS would be in big trouble. I don’t think they will do this, however, since they presently really do not have the money or resources to build their own station to attach to these modules. Right now it seems they are planning to institute their own commercial operations on ISS, adding a module that will act as a tourist hotel. This suggests they will be willing to extend their ISS participation, assuming we keep the money flowing to them by funding LOP-G.

Europe’s participation in ISS is more questionable. It wants to do something outside of Earth orbit, and has committed itself to the idea of building a “lunar village” (their name). For them, LOP-G fits with this concept, especially because they expect it to come with a lot of U.S. taxpayer dollars to pay for it.

Overall, the inspector general’s statement is somewhat pessimistic. He notes that NASA needs to do something to get ISS off its hands, but he also is unsure what the agency can do to accomplish this. In the end, he notes that deorbiting the station will be necessary, but that NASA — which claims it will need almost a billion dollars to accomplish this — has not yet done the work to make that possible.

Why NASA says it needs that much cash to do this appalls me. De-orbiting should not cost so much. Buy one or two Falcon Heavy launches with docking modules attached, and have its upper stages do the de-orbit. This could cost as little as $200 million if they buy used boosters. Add in the cost for the docking ports, which couldn’t cost that much, and you have a de-orbit mission ready to go.

Maybe in the end the best and cheapest solution would be for NASA to de-orbit ISS and buy its Earth-orbit station operations from private companies. There are already a handful of companies with the capability of doing this, and doing it for far less than the cost of ISS. Much as the agency did with its cargo and crew needs for ISS, it could get the same product from the private sector for far less, and quicker.

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4 comments

  • mike shupp

    Why dump the ISS on Earth when its time is up? It’s a treasure stock of metal and plastics and silicon, painstakingly refined and shaped, and expensively transported into near Earth Orbit. If nothing else, it’s a unique historic relic which future generations might regard more than we.

    Dump it on the Moon as a source of material for future colonists, or push it out to a parking orbit where it will be safe for the next million years. Either would cost less than de-orbiting the ISS and either would make it a valuable resource for future generations of spacefarers.

  • wodun

    Isn’t Boeing the prime contractor managing the ISS? If they can’t turn a profit off it on the market, then it probably isn’t economically viable for other commercial players either. Maybe someone could but they have to recreate the supply chain that maintains the station, no small feat.

    I haven’t seen much about how LOP-G will support lunar activities other than eventually serving as a way station for crewed lunar missions. But these missions wont be happening for a long time. There are many years of prospecting work to be done first. By that time, many things could change with the LOP-G from being cancelled to being moved to a different orbit.

    I suspect that obsolescence will occur as the BFR/BFS come online, perhaps just in time to take advantage of the prospecting missions.

    or push it out to a parking orbit where it will be safe for the next million years.

    I like this idea. Put it in the GEO bird graveyard orbit.

  • Diane Wilson

    Parking it is probably out of the question. It would take a lot more energy to boost it up, even well short of GEO. And without automated station-keeping (which requires fuel and maintenance over time), it would start to tumble. At that point, it wouldn’t be safe to approach, even for salvage.

    Maybe BFS can bring pieces back, for the Smithsonian.

  • Localfluff

    The ISS has a mass of over 400 tons. It requires about monthly boosts to stay in orbit, since it is being dragged down by the upper atmosphere. This the lowest possible orbit has been chosen because space debris are quickly deorbited there. Moving it outward would expose its 400 square meter Solar array for debris impact risk. And it would take alot to move the ISS anywhere. Here’s a graph of ISS’ altitude due to falling into the atmosphere, and boosts to keep it up:
    https://qph.ec.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-b61bedbc7c6cc3e8fa368c21c152971a

    The ISS wasn’t designed to be operated privately, and it’s hard to convert stuff in space. That Bigelow has, an this other company will soon, dock their own space station prototype / first segments to the ISS is great use of it. But taking over the ISS has so many problems. It is old. It is a jumble of different national inputs. It is extremely requiring to operate and maintain. The ISS has given great lessons on human space flight. Alot has been learned about how not to build a long-term space station.

    Weightlessness, vacuum and extreme cold must be great industrial conditions for additive manufacturing and any modern methods for assembling magic materials nanometers at a time. And for bio engineering of course. Combinatorics give that anything can be built biologically. And for quantum computing.

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