Stuck in Earth orbit

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Estimated reading time: nine minutes

The International Space Station won't last forever. Its oldest module turns 20 this year, and the current agreement between NASA and its international partners is to fly the station through 2024. Earlier this year, the Trump administration declared it wasn't going to extend that timeline, and instead transition to some sort of private station where NASA isn't the primary customer.

Compared to all the bad things Trump and his band of misfits have wrought on the country, this actually ranks as a reasonable action. Many people have given the administration credit for "starting the discussion," and that discussion is already wearing me out. For the next several years, senators like Ted Cruz and Bill Nelson, who represent districts with lots of human spaceflight jobs, are going to remind us they are VERY CONCERNED about throwing the station away before there's a replacement. All the space knowers on Twitter will tweet accordingly long those lines, while NASA tries to reassure everyone there will be an orderly transition. And this will go on for years while nothing meaningful occurs.

It doesn't help that NASA's ISS transition report was a big nothingburger that unrealistically promises to replicate everything the ISS offers in a commercial space station, at a much lower cost. The most ludicrous idea on the table is keeping the current station as-is but turning the keys over to a commercial company. The ISS, like most government projects, was never meant to be profitable. It will cost somewhere around $3.6 billion this year to operate, including crew and cargo transportation. At a recent Senate hearing, a Boeing executive said the station's current revenue stream was just $100 million. LOL. Ain't nobody running that station and turning a profit, unless it sheds some of its vital functions (it won't), or NASA provides a very large subsidy.

The reason this is such a mess is because no one wants to own up to the fact that the ISS really isn't that valuable to begin with. It exists mostly as a self-licking ice cream cone that provides small benefits to many stakeholders but no large benefit to anyone in particular—except its major contractors, which are Boeing, SpaceX and Orbital ATK (which is now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems). But because of all those small benefits, and the public's appetite to keep humans flying in space, the ISS is easy defend and hard to trash. Just like the space shuttle, NASA will have to keep flying it as long as possible, at great cost, whether that's a good idea or not.

What is the ISS for? It does a lot of things, some of which are unique to having an astronaut present, and some of which are not. Let's start with the latter: Because things behave differently in weightlessness, you can do all sorts of cool experiments to learn about things in ways you can't on Earth. You can grow special protein crystals for drug research. You can study how fluids spread, which is useful for miniaturizing electronics. You can watch the way ceramics and metals bond and learn how to make stronger materials.

That's great and all, but I challenge you to name one major finding from any of those experiments. NASA is proud to point out that as of last year, 1,471 papers have been published in peer-reviewed journals relating to ISS science. But from 2015 to 2017, just 14 made it into the world's top five academic journals. Of those, only one made it into Science or Nature, and that paper came from a Japanese X-ray experiment called MAXI mounted on the station’s exterior. In fact, astrophysics is the heavy hitter when it comes to ISS research. The most-cited ISS paper of all time is the initial results from the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer. But you don't really need the ISS for those astrophysics instruments; you could just as well launch them on a satellite.


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Another thing we do on the ISS is study the effects of weightlessness on the human body. NASA collects copious saliva, urine, and poop samples from its astronauts to figure out...what, exactly? That long-duration spaceflight makes you feel like you have the flu when you get home? That your bones get weak? That your lifetime cancer risk is higher? Yeah, we know all that, and yet there's still no shortage of people applying to be astronauts. Christ, we've been flying people in space since 1961! How much longer do we need to study this before we can go back to the Moon, or on to Mars? And it's not like once the ISS goes away, the research has to stop. NASA can collect astronaut farts all the way to Mars and back if they want; do we really have to hang out in Earth orbit for another decade studying this?

Oh, and let's talk about piss recycling. Astronauts' favorite PG-rated joke is that today's pee becomes tomorrow's coffee. If the piss recycler breaks on the space station, we can send up parts on the next cargo flight, and if that fails, we can always abandon ship and be home in an hour or so. Have we ever had to run home with our tail between our legs in 18 years of continuous crewed station operations? We have not. I deem the piss recycler, oxygen generators, and carbon dioxide scrubbers safe enough for lunar operations, where spare parts and emergency bail-outs are still relatively close at hand. Did Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin cower in Earth orbit because the piss recycler wasn't vetted enough? They did not. They peed and pooped in little Apollo baggies all the way to the Moon.

What about international cooperation? It's true that there is no other project in the history of the world like the ISS, where 37 countries collaborate on a giant space outpost. But let's be real here: NASA pays for most of the station's costs. The main reason the station is "international" is because when the Soviet Union collapsed, the United States wanted to give Russia's aerospace industry something useful to do rather than selling missiles to unstable regimes. The ISS is still a feel-good international story, but it's not exactly keeping Russia and the U.S. on good terms, or keeping the U.S. from excluding would-be partners like China.

Taken together, you could argue the sum total of these marginal benefits justifies the station's continued existence, and the $3.6 billion NASA pays for it annually. Actually, we shouldn't have to debate this at all, considering we spend $700 billion on the military each year. For that amount of money, we could build more space stations, send probes to every object in the solar system, and still have enough left over to give everyone in the country universal health care and a basic income. God, we humans are stupid about managing our resources.

But instead, NASA only gets half a percent of the federal budget, and needs a lot of that money to do all the other cool things it does, like operating Mars rovers, building badass space telescopes, and literally flying probes through the edge of the sun. We have to be fiscally prudent. If we ever want to send humans to the Moon or Mars, and not just hope that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will get us there without NASA's help (they won't) and set up rich-people-only utopias (they will), then we need to get rid of the ISS as soon as possible. I don't relish the idea of throwing it in the ocean more than anyone else; just the other day I went outside to watch a good twilight ISS pass, and my brain got all mushy and started composing Sagan-esque tweets about how beautiful it is that you can watch six astronauts fly gracefully over your house. But you know what would be even cooler? A fucking Moon base.

Now, I am a realist, so I concede that as a government agency, NASA may have at least some responsibility for ensuring access to a space station in low-Earth orbit. The ISS is a designated NATIONAL LABORATORY, its advocates are quick to point out, so it has other users like the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the National Institutes of Health, and even private companies—because in America, what is government for if not to enable capitalism? So, just as the Department of Transportation builds roads for all, it seems NASA will be tasked with maintaining a space station for all.

That's fine, I guess, but NASA needs to stand up for itself and make sure it doesn't get hosed on the cost. It should put a strict cost cap on an annual subsidy—say, a billion dollars—for a commercial company to build and operate a small, streamlined station that would succeed the ISS. It should trim back or eliminate its own space station wish list and focus on doing its essential human spaceflight research in deep space. Other government agencies and private companies can have their Earth-orbiting station so long as they pay appropriately. It's not NASA's job to spend billions and billions of dollars circling the Earth indefinitely, waiting for a commercial market to magically appear. Let's provide the basic capability and a modest subsidy and then let BIG CAPITALISM run its course.

I regret to say that this alone won't solve NASA's human spaceflight problems. There's still the equally expensive Space Launch System and Orion to deal with, but those programs should eventually collapse under their own weight. The only reason this hasn't happened yet is because Congress and NASA use fuzzy math to insist we can only explore deep space with SLS because it can carry large, heavy things. Once SpaceX's BFR or Blue Origin's New Glenn get up and running, that argument will get a lot weaker.

What NASA leadership should be doing in the meantime is quietly strategizing how the hell they're going to shift all the money from the ISS, Space Launch System, and Orion to deep space exploration programs. NASA is a big, honking bureaucracy, and you can't just assume the funding at places like Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and Johnson Space Center in Houston will cleanly transfer to new projects. Once those southern centers get even a whiff of big changes, it's going to be a full-court media press talking about how NASA used to build rockets and fly space stations and now we're throwing it all away for an uncertain future. When that happens, somebody better be right there with a well-thought-out plan showing how these centers can help by building deep space hardware, or we're gonna end up spending another few decades farting around in low-Earth orbit.