It can’t stay up there forever. Space is harsh, the International Space Station is getting old and the astronauts on board are continually doing repairs. During his year in space, NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent a fair amount of time fixing the toilet.
As big as a football field, the station is a marvel of engineering that’s been continuously inhabited by an international cadre of astronauts since 2000 — allowing humanity to live in orbit, 250 miles up, for nearly two decades. The United States has spent nearly $100 billion on the orbiting laboratory, and has continually looked for ways to keep it flying. Under then-president Barack Obama, the life of the station was extended to 2024. And NASA has been studying whether it could continue as long as 2028.
Since President Trump was elected, he has promised big plans for the United States in space. He resurrected the National Space Council, tapping Vice President Pence to lead it. The White House has talked about returning to the moon, this time creating a permanent presence there. How and at what cost, it has not said.
Recently, there has been concerns that the administration plans to stick to Obama’s timeline and stop funding for the station in 2024. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) decried the move, saying if the White House tried to do that “they’re going to have a fight on their hands.”
Boeing, which operates the station for NASA, said that “walking away” from the station “would be a mistake, threatening American leadership in space and hurting the commercial market as well as the scientific community.”
The White House isn’t planning to release its budget until Feb. 12, so exact details are sketchy, and the National Space Council declined to comment. But in a brief and strongly worded statement, NASA said it is “committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space.”
Nelson’s concern, shared by many, is that the station serves not just as a science lab, but as an economic engine. Companies like SpaceX, Orbital ATK and Sierra Nevada Corp. are paid billions to fly cargo and supplies there.
SpaceX and Boeing are under contracts to fly astronauts there, in test flights that could begin this year.
But for all the talk about pulling support from the space station, the White House is on the record in favor of maintaining a human presence in low Earth orbit, the neighborhood that the station inhabits.
In a speech in October, Pence said, “The president has charged us with laying the foundation for America to maintain a constant commercial, human presence in low Earth orbit.”
The White House has said repeatedly that it intends to recommit the nation to space exploration, in partnership with the private sector and the international community. Some in industry have said they expect the administration to unveil a plan to involve commercial entities in a deep-space mission, aimed at the moon. And others have said there will be some sort of partnership, on the space station or not, to keep a presence in low Earth orbit.
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said he looks “forward to working with the administration on a transition plan for the station that includes the commercial sector playing a vital role.”
Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is building expandable space habitats. One of them is even attached to the station now, as a test site. In an interview, Bob Bigelow, the company’s chief executive, said he plans to launch two space habitats to low Earth orbit by 2021.
But he’s in no rush to see the space station go away anytime soon.
“There’s no question the ISS is a huge financial albatross around NASA’s neck,” he said. “What also is a fact is, the ISS is still the only game in town that we have at the moment. So it needs to be a harmonious transition between that platform and using commercial platforms that could serve your needs better and at significantly less cost.”