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.