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The International Space Station is likely to continue operating for another decade, but without more government support, a privately-owned outpost may not be ready in time to replace it, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine told Spaceflight Now he is concerned that a commercial space station may not be ready by the time the International Space Station reaches the end of its life.
While NASA focuses more resources on a return of astronauts to the moon, and eventually human expeditions to Mars, the space agency still wants to send experiments and crews into low Earth orbit to test out technologies for deep space exploration and perform other research investigations.
Instead of owning and operating a space station itself, the government wants to lease accommodations on a commercial outpost in orbit.
“Under no circumstances should we have a gap in low Earth orbit,” Bridenstine in an interview. “We’ve been asking Congress to fund the development of commercial habitation in low Earth orbit now for a number of years. And every year … Congress doesn’t fund it.
“If we keep going down this path where we don’t fund the replacement for the space station, we will end up with a gap, which I think is very bad for the country,” Bridenstine said. “Just like after Apollo ended, we had an eight year gap before space shuttle. Just like after shuttle ended, we had a nine year gap before we did commercial crew.”
With SpaceX on the verge of starting operational commercial crew flights to the International Space Station, transportation services to low Earth orbit for people and cargo are now run by the private sector. Boeing’s Starliner crew capsule, which could become operational next year after encountering delays, will be a second vehicle for commercial crew transportation to low Earth orbit.
Congress has committed NASA to continuing International Space Station operations through at least 2024. Lawmakers have proposed another extension to 2028 or 2030, and Bridenstine said he is confident Congress will soon pass a bill to extend NASA’s support of the ISS program through at least the late 2020s.
Dmitry Rogozin, director general of the Russian space agency, said last month that Russia is “ready to consider” any proposal to extend the International Space Station’s lifetime.
But Congress has not been as keen to provide NASA funding to jump-start development of new commercial habitats in low Earth orbit. That raises worries that the continuous presence of humans in orbit — began 20 years ago last month with the launch of the first International Space Station crew — may end when the ISS is decommissioned.
NASA hopes a privately-owned outpost will be cheaper to operate than the $3 billion to $4 billion the space agency spends each year operating the ISS.
“We need to make sure that we’re investing today for commercial habitation in the future because NASA wants to be a customer in low Earth orbit, not the owner-operator,” Bridenstine said. “And I think that there’s opportunity to avoid a gap if we start right now, but the longer we go, the more likely it is that we’re going to have a gap.”
The Trump administration requested $150 million for NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization initiative in fiscal year 2020, but Congress only approved $15 million for the program.
The funding shortfall caused NASA to put on hold a solicitation for a company to build a commercial “free-flyer” space station.
“Before we can get a solicitation out, we’ve to make sure that we’ve got funding for a selection, so that’s what we’re working on now,” Bridenstine said.
“The big thing that I’m worried about is that the ISS comes the end of its useful life, and we don’t have a replacement,” Bridenstine said. “And I’ll tell you why that’s a problem. It’s a problem because China is building their own space station, and they’re going to be attracting partners from around the world, and I think the United States of America should be in the lead.”
NASA has made more progress with an effort to add a privately-owned module to the International Space Station. Earlier this year, NASA selected Axiom Space of Houston to attach a commercial module to the ISS. Read from source….