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Bring on the Private Space Stations

Bring on the Private Space Stations

Friday, 4 February, 2022 - 05:30

This year, astronauts will likely complete construction of Tiangong, China’s answer to the International Space Station. It’s the next step in China’s progress toward becoming a major space power. It also looks like a bet that the US lacks the planning and willpower to replace its much bigger outpost in orbit. A “space-station gap” that erodes America’s traditional leadership is now a distinct — and worrisome — possibility.

Over its lifespan, the ISS has played many roles, including acting as a laboratory and a tourist destination. It is currently hosting hundreds of experiments. But its problems are mounting. In recent years, it’s developed alarming cracks and leaks. Never cheap (at some $3 billion annually) the station saw its maintenance costs balloon by 35% between 2016 and 2020. And while proposals to replace it with commercial alternatives have circulated for years, for now they remain largely aspirational.

The Tiangong is much smaller than the ISS and lacks some of its capabilities. But it has a good chance of becoming the pre-eminent lab in orbit once the ISS is decommissioned. If the countries or institutions that currently rely on the ISS want to continue their orbital research, they may have little choice but to turn to America’s geopolitical rival and its military-run space program.

Such a turn will affect more than American leadership. For two decades, the ISS has acted as a tool the US could wield to forge international consensus on space-related issues, including with adversaries. It has also served as a refuge from terrestrial politics. Despite years of worsening tensions between the US and Russia, for instance, collaboration and progress have always prevailed in orbit — so much so that the ISS was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

This isn’t the first time that the US has failed to plan for space-age obsolescence. In 2004, President George W. Bush announced the retirement of the space-shuttle program, even though the US had no other means to access the ISS. Congress, for its part, couldn’t find the will to invest in a successor program. This “spaceflight gap” meant that the US had to pay Russia hundreds of millions of dollars to fly astronauts to the ISS, in what amounted to a national embarrassment.

Fortunately, NASA wasn’t completely out of ideas. A year before the final shuttle flight, the agency started a program to spur the development of private rockets that (in theory) could be hired like a space taxi. The goal was to launch a private, crewed spacecraft to the ISS in 2015. Among the enthusiastic participants was Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Unfortunately, Congress chronically underfunded the program in its early years, resulting in design, management and safety lapses, along with significant delays. It wasn’t until 2020 — nine years after the last shuttle flight — that the first crewed spaceflight under the program took off.

Despite its rocky start, that program now looks like a success, with SpaceX providing regular crewed missions to the ISS. In fact, it could serve as a model for replacing the space station.

President Joe Biden’s administration has approved an extension of the ISS to 2030, which should forestall a space-station gap for the short-term. But it’s a temporary solution requiring increasingly expensive band-aids. The better news is that America’s private space sector is just getting started. In 2020, NASA awarded $140 million to Axiom Space Inc. to attach habitable modules to the ISS that (if all goes well) will eventually break off and form part of a free-floating space station. Last month, the agency awarded $400 million to three groups of companies — led by NanoRacks LLC, Blue Origin and Northrop Grumman Corp. — to develop space stations of their own.

The awards are similar to those that led to SpaceX’s successful launch services to the ISS. The hope is to eventually build a network of new stations that NASA can rent out as needed, saving the agency perhaps $1 billion a year. Anyone else looking for access to a space lab — whether governments, academics or companies — will then have competing options to choose from, ideally driving down costs and improving services.

Unfortunately, Congress has so far failed to adequately fund the program, thereby threatening NASA’s goal to have a completed destination in space by 2028. If this shortsighted stinginess persists, the US could well repeat the mistakes of the post-space shuttle era. This time, though, the stakes are much higher and the margin for error smaller. America should aim high.


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