Bipartisan pair of senators blast plan to end space station in seven years

Enlarge / Sen. Ted Cruz, right, and Sen. Bill Nelson (background) both support extending ISS operations beyond 2025.

At one point on Wednesday afternoon, US Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) turned to his counterpart from Florida, Democrat Bill Nelson, and spoke of their mutual preference for continuing federal funding for the International Space Station throughout the 2020s. "Senator Nelson and I are on exactly the same page," Cruz said.

"Why couldn't we agree on a lot of other pages?" Nelson quipped in reply.

The exchange came during a hearing of the Senate's Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, which Cruz chairs, on the topic of "Examining the Future of the International Space Station: Administration Perspectives." More specifically, the Trump administration has said it will end NASA's direct support for the International Space Station in 2025. Wednesday's hearing delivered a bipartisan response from the Senate in which key members vigorously oppose this plan.

The plan

NASA would like to transition from spending $3 to $4 billion a year on ISS operations in low Earth orbit to a sustainable commercial marketplace where NASA is one of many customers. This means that a private entity could take over control of the space station (and pay the lion's share of the bills) or several smaller commercial stations could fulfill the role of providing orbital way stations.

Ultimately, almost everyone in the aerospace community would like to see this happen, but there is broad disagreement on how best to make this transition and how quickly it can realistically occur. The senators at Wednesday's hearing did not believe 2025, a timeline pushed by Vice President Mike Pence, was a realistic date for such a transition. (NASA, a White House agency, must advocate for the president's plan even if many there don't support it).

During his questioning, Cruz did not hide his parochial concerns. He asked NASA's William Gerstenmaier, the agency's chief of human exploration, how the end of the station would affect Johnson Space Center in Houston. This center manages the International Space Station and houses the cadre of flight controllers who monitor the vehicle's health and keep it flying. In reality, the administration's decision would probably be devastating, but Gerstenmaier asserted that maybe commercial interests would help the space center along.

The pushback

While certainly both Cruz and Nelson are seeking to protect jobs in Texas and Florida, the panel's other witness offered potent testimony that undercuts the administration's plan. "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," said Paul Martin, NASA's inspector general.

In both his testimony and in response to questions, Martin raised concerns about NASA's International Space Station Transition Plan, which the agency publicly released early this year. The plan made "overly optimistic" assumptions about the interest of private companies in doing business in low Earth orbit and about the costs of operating there, he said.

For example, Martin noted that one study NASA relied on estimated the cost of sending a human into orbit and back in 2025 would be $20 million. This seems far too low, given that the present cost of a Soyuz seat to the station is $84 million. While commercial crew has the potential to reduce this cost, neither Boeing nor SpaceX is likely to bring this cost down soon.

Both Cruz and Nelson hammered the White House Office of Management and Budget as the unseen hand behind the 2025 date, saying it was forcing the premature end of yet another NASA program. No one from the White House budget office was on the panel to defend it. However, if someone were, they probably would have said that with several commercial companies expressing an interest in low Earth orbit stations, it's prudent to at least study how quickly they can get into service and allow NASA to focus its human exploration program on deep space.

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