After years of working on the International Space Station, NASA officials recently announced that they won't have anything to do with the ISS, or low-Earth orbit, after the next ten years.
It's a gamble on NASA's part.
NASA has flown on the ISS for 15 years and all that time, the federal space agency has paid for transportation costs to get astronauts to and from the station and provided astronauts to do research, but that's all coming to an end, according to William Gerstenmaier, NASA's chief of human spaceflight.
"We are going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can. Whether it gets filled in by the private sector or not, NASA's vision is we're trying to move out," Gerstenmaier said during an annual meeting of NASA's advisory board at the Johnson Space Center in early December, according to Ars Technica.
He explained the reasoning behind this, and it's the same one that has long plagued NASA: Funding.
The ISS program currently eats up about $3 billion of NASA's budget and it's estimated that the ISS will cost about $4 billion to operate by 2020. Meanwhile, NASA has announced plans to go back to cislunar space (the space around the moon), to lasso an asteroid and to eventually land astronauts on Mars. Human space travel isn't going to be cheap, and agency officials weighed it out and decided that since they couldn't afford both, the ISS would have to go up on the chopping block.
Thus, even though the lab has been the scene of hundreds of scientific experiments — with experiments that have looked at everything from the way cancer drugs are administered to the long-term effects of living in space to the nature of dark matter and the theory of relativity — Gerstenmaier was fairly blunt when he explained that within the next decade, the ISS won't be NASA's responsibility. NASA could dump the ISS in 2024 or give it an extension through 2028, but then the space station will most likely be broken apart and allowed to drift into the atmosphere, where it will disintegrate and ultimately drop into the Pacific Ocean. And that will be the end of the NASA presence in low-Earth orbit.
From there, NASA officials are hoping that the private space industry steps in and starts working in low-Earth orbit to fill the NASA-shaped void. The thing is, NASA has been pushing the commercialization of space hard in recent years, but as we've seen with the move toward commercial rocket launches — launches for both Orbital and SpaceX erupted into very expensive explosions during unmanned supply launches last year — it's not as easy to launch things into space and, you know, do rocket science as NASA makes it look.
Plus, there are absolutely no guarantees that the private space industry will get on board with the low-Earth orbit stuff. Gerstenmaier admitted that he's not sure the industry will be ready to take on commercializing low-Earth orbit. “We gave industry a 10-year horizon,” he said. “The chances of this are low, but it’s worth a try.”
Meanwhile, NASA will be intent on its main mission to get astronauts back into actual space exploration, the kind that ended with Apollo 17 in 1972.
This could all play out exactly the way Gerstenmaier and the other NASA officials are spinning it: NASA lets the ISS go, commercial companies step into that void and start paying to send astronauts to the station to do commercially motivated research — or to pose for pictures in a Coca-Cola Classic-sponsored lounge while wearing uniforms emblazoned with the golden arches of co-sponsor McDonald's — and NASA astronauts get back to exploring cislunar space, and then an asteroid and then they're off to Mars.
But as we've already learned in recent years, NASA is a federal agency at the mercy of politics and the whims and wants of both the White House and Congress. A lot of the emphasis on NASA funding and space exploration depends on who is in the White House. For instance, George W. Bush kicked a lot of funding toward the space program and sending astronauts back to the moon during his time in office — the shuttle program was actually canceled only because there was supposed to be a new spacecraft to replace it — but most of that funding dried up when W left office.
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When President Barack Obama came in, initially he was focused on the Great Recession and not so much worried about what NASA's mission would be, which was part of the reason that NASA funding was constantly getting cut. Nowadays Obama seems like he's gotten into the whole space exploration thing, but he's a president on his way out and there's no telling what the next person to be elected to the top spot will think about the final frontier.
And that's the catch: NASA has announced that it will be giving up the one firm toehold we currently have in space on the ISS, because NASA is sure that it is an agency moving on to the kind of space exploration that made little kids dream of being astronauts when NASA first got started with projects Mercury and Apollo in the 1960s.
It's possible that by abandoning the ISS and putting all of its eggs (or funding or hopes or whatever you want to call it) into human space exploration, NASA is setting up a situation where the space agency will again be taking small steps for mankind on strange new worlds, and all of that. But it is also distinctly possible that the next person in the White House could take a meat cleaver to NASA's funding. NASA could end up without the ISS and without the funding to do the real space exploration.
Of course, NASA could also pull it off, get us back to cislunar space in the coming years, and then to an asteroid. And then someday maybe we'll all get to watch as an astronaut takes the first steps across the red dirt of Mars. Anything is possible.