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posted by martyb on Friday May 18 2018, @06:04AM   Printer-friendly
from the why-so-costly? dept.

Trump's plan to privatize the ISS by 2025 probably won't work, NASA's inspector general says

The Trump Administration's plan to hand the International Space Station off to the private sector by 2025 probably won't work, says a government auditor. It's unlikely that any commercial companies will be able to take on the enormous costs of operating the ISS within the next six years, the auditor said.

NASA's inspector general, Paul Martin, laid out his concerns over the space station's transition during a Senate space subcommittee hearing May 16th, helmed by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL). During his testimony, Martin said that there's just no "sufficient business case" for space companies to take on the ISS's yearly operations costs, which are expected to reach $1.2 billion in 2024. The industries that would need the ISS, such as space tourism or space research and development, haven't panned out yet, he noted. Plus, the private space industry hasn't been very enthusiastic about using the ISS either — for research or for profit. "Candidly, the scant commercial interest shown in the station over its nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause about the agency's current plans," Martin said at the hearing.

Also at Ars Technica.

Related: NASA Intends to Privatize International Space Station
Congress Ponders the Fate of the ISS after 2024
Buzz Aldrin: Retire the ISS to Reach Mars
Can the International Space Station be Saved? Should It be Saved?
Trump Administration Plans to End Support for the ISS by 2025

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NASA Intends to Privatize International Space Station 33 comments

NASA may sell/lease parts of the International Space Station in the next decade:

NASA has signalled its intention to offload the International Space Station (ISS) some time in the 2020s. News of the sale appeared in the video below, at about the 14:15 mark [YouTube] when Bill Hill, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems development, ponders the ISS' role in future missions.

"Ultimately our desire is to hand the space station to either a commercial entity or some other commercial capability so that research can continue in low-Earth orbit. We figure that will be around the mid-20s."

Hill and the other speakers in the video explain how NASA is preparing for a crewed Mars mission and outline how the agency is now well and truly in the market for ideas about how to get it done.

Also at SpaceFlight Insider and TechCrunch.

Russia to Build New Space Station with NASA after ISS
Russia Investigates Downsizing Space Station Crew From Three to Two

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Congress Ponders the Fate of the ISS after 2024 20 comments

NASA will operate aboard the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024, but there is no consensus on what do after that year. There is some talk of commercializing the station (and a Bigelow Expandable Activity Module is already attached to the ISS):

The United States' ability to send astronauts to Mars in the mid-2030s depends in part on cutting back or ending government funding for the International Space Station (ISS) after 2024, the head of a congressional subcommittee that oversees NASA said Wednesday (March 22). "We ought to be aware that remaining on the ISS [after 2024] will come at a cost," U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space, said during a hearing about options and impacts for station operations beyond 2024. "Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars," Babin said. "What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?"

[...] [NASA Associate Administrator Bill] Gerstenmaier, who oversees NASA's human exploration programs, urged Congress to plan a smooth transition from the station to beyond-low-Earth-orbit initiatives, with an eye on preserving U.S. leadership in space, especially with China planning to launch a new space station in 2023. [...] Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration advocacy group, warned that ending the U.S.' efforts at the station too early could nix budding commercial space companies, some of which might eventually support the station's continued operation as a commercial outpost. "Applications with strong market potential are emerging," Dittmar said. "Abandoning the ISS too soon will most certainly guarantee failure."

[...] While Congress ponders the station's future, NASA should expand its partnerships with private companies, urged Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based industry association. "The NASA investment[s] in these partnerships are already paying huge dividends," Stallmer said. For example, by partnering with private companies, NASA has been able to cut its costs to fly cargo — and, soon, crew — to the station, compared with what it spent to operate its own fleet of space shuttles, which cost about $500 million per mission to fly.

Also at The Verge.

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Buzz Aldrin: Retire the ISS to Reach Mars 74 comments

Buzz Aldrin has said that NASA should stop spending $3.5 billion per year on the International Space Station and relinquish low Earth orbit activities to private companies, such as SpaceX, Orbital ATK, Boeing, Bigelow Aerospace, and Axiom Space. This would allow for the funding of "cyclers" to enable a base on the moon and eventually a permanent presence on Mars:

Establishing private outposts in LEO is just the first step in Aldrin's plan for Mars colonization, which depends heavily on "cyclers" — spacecraft that move continuously between two cosmic destinations, efficiently delivering people and cargo back and forth. "The foundation of human transportation is the cycler," the 87-year-old former astronaut said. "Very rugged, so it'll last 30 years or so; no external moving parts."

Step two involves the international spaceflight community coming together to build cyclers that ply cislunar space, taking people on trips to the moon and back. Such spacecraft, and the activities they enable, would allow the construction of a crewed lunar base, where humanity could learn and test the techniques required for Mars colonization, such as how to manufacture propellant from local resources, Aldrin said. Then would come Earth-Mars cyclers, which Aldrin described as "an evolutionary development" of the prior cyclers.

[...] NASA officials have repeatedly said that the ISS is a key part of the agency's "Journey to Mars" vision, which aims to get astronauts to the vicinity of the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s.

Is the ISS a key part of the "Journey to Mars" or a key roadblock?

Original Submission

Can the International Space Station be Saved? Should It be Saved? 62 comments

Although Russia has plans to detach some of its modules from the International Space Station (ISS) in order to form the basis of a new space station, the majority of the ISS may be deorbited as soon as 2024 or 2028:

Over the course of six missions, the British-born Nasa astronaut has spent more than a year in space. Foale has flown in the Space Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz, lived on the Mir space station and commanded the International Space Station (ISS). He’s carried out four space walks, totalling almost 23 hours outside in both Russian and American spacesuits. These included an epic eight-hour spacewalk to upgrade the computer on the Hubble Space Telescope.

[...] A joint enterprise between the US, Russia, the European Space Agency (Esa), Japan and Canada, the ISS has now been continuously occupied since 2000. And, over that time, has increasingly come to justify its $100bn (£75bn) cost. [...] But the station's days are numbered. Funding by the various space agencies involved is only agreed until 2024. This means in just six years' time, the most expensive structure ever built will be pushed out of orbit by a Progress spacecraft to disintegrate over the Pacific. And the countdown clock is ticking. "Year by year, Russia is launching the fuel to fill up the tanks of the ISS service module to enable the space station to be deorbited," says Foale. "That's the current plan – I think it's a bad plan, a massive waste of a fantastic resource."

Trump Administration Plans to End Support for the ISS by 2025 37 comments

A draft budget proposal would end support for the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025. The U.S. was previously committed to operating at the ISS until 2024:

The Trump administration is preparing to end support for the International Space Station program by 2025, according to a draft budget proposal reviewed by The Verge. Without the ISS, American astronauts could be grounded on Earth for years with no destination in space until NASA develops new vehicles for its deep space travel plans.

The draft may change before an official budget request is released on February 12th. However, two people familiar with the matter have confirmed to The Verge that the directive will be in the final proposal. We reached out to NASA for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

Also at the Wall Street Journal.

Related: Five Key Findings From 15 Years of the International Space Station
Congress Ponders the Fate of the ISS after 2024
NASA Eyeing Mini Space Station in Lunar Orbit as Stepping Stone to Mars
NASA and Roscosmos Sign Joint Statement on the Development of a Lunar Space Station
Russia Assembles Engineering Group for Lunar Activities and the Deep Space Gateway
Can the International Space Station be Saved? Should It be Saved?

Original Submission

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  • (Score: 3, Funny) by TheReaperD on Friday May 18 2018, @07:01AM (7 children)

    by TheReaperD (5556) on Friday May 18 2018, @07:01AM (#681044)

    I'm not sure why this would be a surprise to the politicians or anyone else. It's a space station built for research... period. It's not like you can retrofit it for tourism at anything approaching a reasonable cost and corporations have not invested heavily into scientific research in decades. Their practice has been to buy up smaller research firms that happen to hit a worthwhile discovery rather than invest in research themselves. The smaller firms can't absorb the cost and the bigger ones don't want to take on the expense with no guarantee of return; especially for an endeavor that is pure scientific research with no immediate ROI.

    Ad eundum quo nemo ante iit
    • (Score: 2) by c0lo on Friday May 18 2018, @07:28AM

      by c0lo (156) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 18 2018, @07:28AM (#681056) Journal

      and corporations have not invested heavily into scientific research in decades. Their practice has been to buy up smaller research firms that happen to hit a worthwhile discovery rather than invest in research themselves.

      Mmmmhhh... yes and no.
      If you mean "pure science research" than yes, you are right, but then again ISS is not a "pure science" endeavor, rather an "applied science"/technological one.
      If we extend the area to "investment in applied science/technological research", your assertion is not true. Some recent examples:
      - Extreme UV lithography wafer etching - required the development of an EUV source powerful enough
      - see the Skunk Work's compact fusion reactor - not yet there, but Lockheed Martin invests in it.

    • (Score: 3, Interesting) by ledow on Friday May 18 2018, @08:27AM (4 children)

      by ledow (5567) on Friday May 18 2018, @08:27AM (#681079) Homepage

      Even if you didn't touch it, space tourism is just not viable.

      $1bn a year is a lot of money. There aren't many companies in the world capable of paying that at all.

      To then expect to recoup that commercially means you have to make a billion dollars a year, probably two, from using it. Not taking into account actually launching people to get to it - because the occasional maintenance / restock flight is how it ticks over and can only carry a very small number of people.

      $1bn a year is... $2.7m a day... you would need 3 millionaires, every day of year, spending a million dollars a trip, for a 24h trip (and/or keeping say 20 people on board and taking one up and one down each day and they each stay 20 days, etc.).

      And that's just to break even. To actually profit, retrofit, organise regular flights, etc. you would need much more than that, or spending several billion a year.

      Though ISS was fabulous from a science point of view, from any kind of tourism point of view you can forget it unless you can attract a regular stream of risk-taking billionaires. What we should be invested in is building stuff outside the Earth's atmosphere... on planets. If you had a Moon base costing $10bn a year, you could probably sell that off as a going concern quite easily. But an antique space station in orbit isn't of much value at all. It's only unique factor is human occupation. But there's not much a human can do confined in a tin can and still-highly-risky space-walks get old quick when they are all you have to do and cost $2.7m a day.

      Space tourism will not be profitable until you have a destination. The ISS isn't a destination. It's a port. Sure, it'd be really cool to go there. Once. But it's just a port, with nothing to actually see or do.

      If you want space tourists, build a Moon base. Then you have a port to launch from (ISS), a destination, an whole new world to discover, viable mineral rights, etc. a living space, you could literally build a hotel.

      Trouble is - there are a LOT more things to work out before we can start doing that. For a start, who would be allowed to do so, because otherwise the Moon will turn into a dumping ground for failed projects and different countries laying claim to parts of it and it'll be destroyed in a single generation.

      • (Score: 2) by takyon on Friday May 18 2018, @08:41AM (1 child)

        by takyon (881) <reversethis-{gro ... s} {ta} {noykat}> on Friday May 18 2018, @08:41AM (#681083) Journal

        $1.2 billion does not sound like the required operating costs of a typical space station. It seems like what NASA spends on it including science and support staff.

        A space station should be mostly self-sufficient if built right and put in a nice, high orbit. Periodic resupply of goods with a BFR could be well under $100 million. ISS is not good for tourists because it has no B330s [] and no artificial gravity scheme. And it is an aging facility which could need too much maintenance. []

        [SIG] 10/28/2017: Soylent Upgrade v14 []
      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @08:50PM (1 child)

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @08:50PM (#681382)

        ISS was fabulous from a science point of view

        No it wasn't. They could (should) have used sounding rockets for much less money. It was a give away to defense contractors. (Coming from an employee of said ISS contractor)

        • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 19 2018, @07:05PM

          by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 19 2018, @07:05PM (#681641)

          You are right, it was horrible from a science point of view. All the major science societies were against justifying it on a science basis before it was built ("There is micro interest in microgravity"). There never was a strong science case to make for it, and NASA never did itself any favors trying to overhype the science results of it after it was launched. It was always a "feel good" project (there are cases to be made for these kind of international projects, but you have to ask what level of budget justifies it: CERN is a nice example here).

          I will disagree that it was simply a handout to the defense industry. The majority of the dollars went to the Lockheeds and Grummans of the world, but they were the only ones with the infrastructure and expertise to handle a project of that size. For instance, one of the problems the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) had was that the prime contractor selected had experience building high energy physics detectors, but no experience with construction, and they quickly ended up in way over their heads.

          For the ISS, a LOT of other money went all over the place (all over the 50 states, to garner broad congressional support).

    • (Score: 1) by khallow on Saturday May 19 2018, @02:28AM

      by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Saturday May 19 2018, @02:28AM (#681501) Journal

      It's a space station built for research... period.

      It's a pork delivery vehicle that has outlived most of its usefulness. Anyone who can afford $1.5 billion a year upkeep can afford to launch their own space station for a lot less than the ISS.

  • (Score: 4, Insightful) by Lester on Friday May 18 2018, @08:29AM

    by Lester (6231) on Friday May 18 2018, @08:29AM (#681080) Journal

    The project is a collaboration of:

    NASA (USA)
    FKA (Russia)
    ESA (European Union)
    JAXA (Japan)
    CSA (Canada)
    ASI (Italy, in addition of being part of ESA)
    AEB (Brazil, indirectly contraction with NASA)

    With NASA a little less than 50%, most of it in the first years of construction. Nowadays, in maintenance, projects etc, much less.

    So what are the plans of NASA? Privatize the currents costs of maintenance and let private companies run their own projects? Why should a private company be interested in that? If a private company has any special interest in a project or experiment, they can hire ISS to do it. So, why take care of current NASA'S maintenance part of costs? Maybe public relations, but a I think it is a little too expensive.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:19PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:19PM (#681146)

    I think we should do it. If Trump is still in power in 2025, that is.

    Otherwise, maybe don't.

  • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:52PM (1 child)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 18 2018, @01:52PM (#681158)

    Can we drop the ISS off on the Moon or some other place where it would provide userful materials for future projects? Steel, wiring, insulation, etc. This stuff isn't cheap to put into orbit.