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Even though the International Space Station is only now just completed, the time may be right to start talking about its successor. (credit: NASA)

ISS Next: chasing humanity’s future in space and the “next logical step”

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Within the American space community, a space station was long considered the “next logical step” especially given the limitations of the Space Shuttle. That centrality was earlier reinforced in the public’s mind by the majestic rotating wheel in space in the Disney short feature Men in Space. The space shuttle was part of a larger vision embodied in the 1969 Space Task Force report, which in its most expansive version envisioned space stations orbiting both the Earth and the Moon, with a space tug employed to move between the two celestial bodies carrying cargo and crew. This particular arrangement was part of a larger endeavor aimed at reaching Mars after establishing bases on the lunar surface.

Ironically, the battle to save ISS ultimately undermined it politically.

The shuttle’s role was straightforward: it was the heavy lifter moving payloads and crew to the Earth-orbiting space station for voyages farther out; basically, a delivery van. With President Nixon’s rejection of the original 1969 plan and approval only of the shuttle, NASA, while developing and testing the Space Shuttle, aggressively pursued seeking approval to build a space station. It became the next logical step for American space activities, one that proved more difficult to start up than many expected in the aftermath of Apollo, as described in Chapter 9 of the NASA history book Spaceflight Revolution. Finally, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan announced initiation of a space station. This approval came despite strong opposition within his administration due to cost and other priorities. Congress was skeptical but willing to buy into the new program despite fears of budget growth, fears that proved accurate over the long term. The original estimate was $8 billion and in orbit by 1992.

Space stations redux

The Russians as the Apollo program ran down initiated the age of space stations with a series of small military space stations that culminated in the 1986 Mir Space Station. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 left the Mir space station in orbit with minimal resources available for station upkeep or upgrading. The deterioration was sufficiently apparent that the United States had to formally evaluate whether astronauts should be sent to the space station as part of the Shuttle-Mir program. On the American side, this program was a dual effort to obtain long-duration space experience while also providing the Russian space program financial resources for several reasons related to US foreign policy. The Russians entered the US space station project (which became the ISS) as partners to the point that their contributions put them on the “critical path,” meaning that failure on their part would significantly delay the program. The safety concerns were not misplaced as the Mir suffered through a series of mishaps due to deterioration of the station and a 1997 accident where a Progress supply vehicle struck the station, which was just a few months after a fire inside the station.

Earlier, the US had dabbled in an early space station in the form of the Skylab that made extensive use of Saturn and Apollo equipment. Through the use of a “dry” third stage of the Saturn V rocket, the station was completely outfitted as a workshop area before launch. Crews visited Skylab and returned to earth in Apollo spacecraft. NASA flew three missions to Skylab with the final mission lasting 84 days. The last mission ended in February 1974 with the station falling into the Indian Ocean in July 1979. Shuttle delays in development meant that any possibility of another visit to the Skylab was lost.

There is no significant public discussion concerning a possible next-generation government space station after the ISS.

Construction of the ISS encountered great difficulties due to several redesign mandates linked to budget issues that were confronted by increasingly indifferent Congresses and presidents. The concept of a space station as a “base camp to the stars” faded under the stress of programmatic incoherence and funding difficulties. By 1993, the US space station program reached its political nadir as the House of Representatives supported the program’s continuation by a single vote on the House floor. The price extracted from the agency was another redesign and the incorporation of the Russian Federation as a full partner. Enter the International Space Station. Despite several crises, the ISS got back on track with permanent occupancy occurring in 2000. However, one result of the ISS and Mir journeys was the loss of any vision of the ISS as opening vistas to the stars. Instead, in 2004, the US announcement of the new Vision for Space Exploration led to the proposal that the ISS be shut down in 2016.

Instead, the United States was now to pursue a space exploration effort aimed first at the Moon and then moving beyond without any use of the ISS or any space station. The resources committed to the ISS were instead cannibalized for the new Constellation Program. The shuttle would also be terminated, with its funding shifted to Constellation in order to build a new launch system, the Ares 1 crew launcher and, later, the heavy-lift Ares 5. This endeavor, in effect, built the Apollo program paradigm without the requisite resources or political support.

Ironically, the battle to save ISS ultimately undermined it politically. During Apollo, NASA had learned well the political lesson to maximize its political support in Congress by spreading contracts across the United States. If possible, every member of Congress was to have a NASA contract, creating a link between the agency and the members’ constituents. That linkage, it has been argued, is why the ISS survived in 1993 while the Superconducting Super Collider was canceled that same year. The latter’s constituency linkages were too concentrated primarily in Texas and Louisiana. By 2009, the core support for Constellation in Congress was increasingly concentrated among congressional members with NASA facilities or large NASA contractors.

As a result, the battle over the proposed Obama space policy doesn’t feature intense widespread congressional support (the key word being widespread) for sustaining the Constellation program, or any human space program for that matter. Those members fighting the Constellation program termination are widely perceived as simply protecting constituent jobs. Traditionally, this would have drawn sympathetic support from other members, but not so in the new budget politics after the 2010 elections, where members active oppose earmarks or congressional pork and, more critically, oppose new initiatives whose economic value is doubted or, in some cases, simply rejected as being big government. Repeated battles over continuing budget resolutions kept Constellation on life support for a time but ultimately became an embarrassment, given that the program was terminated but funds continued to be expended as if it were still underway. This program was replaced by a two-tier approach: commercial spaceflights would handle reaching LEO and supply the ISS. NASA will pursue deep space exploration employing a newly developed heavy lifter, the Space Launch System.

Building “ISS Next”

What is interesting about the trajectory of the new approach, similar to the now-defunct Constellation program minus the Moon as first objective beyond Earth orbit, is that there is no significant public discussion concerning a possible next-generation government space station after the ISS. Essentially, the commercial launchers will support a space station with a limited lifespan, out to 2020 presently and possibly 2028 in some scenarios. Already there is public discussion of how the ISS will be deorbited—either in pieces or a single object—or if parts of the ISS might be converted to flight modules for missions farther out (see “Accelerating the future: human achievements beyond LEO within a decade”, The Space Review, December 5, 2011). The concept raises images of 1960s hippies with their recycled vans as they cruised the country seeking peace and joy.

NASA appears to have no immediate plans for constructing another space station at least with American participation. The Chinese are obviously moving toward a national space station with the September 29, 2011, launch of their Tiangong-1 space module with long term plans (in the 2020 time frame) for a full-scale space station. While China’s immediate future direction is clear, their rhetoric suggests that international cooperation remains one priority. However, >the US has been constrained by congressional action prohibiting NASA-China interactions. Within the commercial sector, the future of space stations or habitats revolves around Bigelow Aerospace’s proposed space structures. The latter is an expansion of the space tourism aspect of space commerce beyond suborbital flights to short-term residency in space hotels. More could be done, but that requires a funding source since science missions and other commercial applications are problematic profit-wise.

Talking in terms of “ISS Next” would be unrealistic by most, but the reality is if there is no action now—even just preliminary talks about who may be interested—the next space station will only be the Chinese version.

The future of human spaceflight until recently has been obsessed with the problem of achieving and sustaining access to orbit. Essentially, step one has been the ballgame: the second step of humans living in space for long intervals of time has become a nonstarter. The longest single duration stay in space by an astronaut or cosmonaut have usually been anomalies caused by launch issues or in the Russian case, the collapse of the Soviet Union when Valeri Polyakov spent 437.7 days in orbit. The longest cumulative time spent in outer space was a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, who has spent over 803 days in space. If exploration by humans of outer space is to occur, information on the effects of truly long duration space operations on crew members must be acquired. That lack of data challenges our ability to move forward. Missions to asteroids are likely too short to provide that necessary information. Missions to Mars provide the opportunity to start collecting such information but at great hazard to the crew. If adverse circumstances arise, the crew’s safety will be beyond help while long-duration stays on an Earth orbiting space station allow relatively easy access to the crew or their immediate return to Earth.

This deficiency in long duration experience is particularly noticeable when one attends conference such as the September 2011 “100 Year Space Ship Symposium” where space voyages will vastly exceed anything proposed presently (see “The journey of 100 years begins with a single weekend”, The Space Review, October 10, 2011). Moving outbound to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn will demand knowledge about the effects of the space environment that can only be gained by previous experience in long-duration stays in space. If humans are to truly live in space either at the Lagrange points or long-duration voyages, the collection of relevant experience is not a luxury but a necessity.

The difficulty is that no one yet has been able to establish a viable justification for building the next space station. The justification can be political or economic or some combination thereof, but one must be developed and pursued. The tooth fairy is not going to leave a space station under one’s pillow. The Soviet/Russian, US, and Chinese space station programs all were initiated and carried out in the context of national prestige and leadership aspirations. In the American case, the space station program as proposed specified multiple functions and missions, but almost all of those got deleted during the repeated redesigns. The successive redesigns were efforts at reducing costs in order to keep the space station one step ahead of cancelation. The near-death experience of the space station program in 1993 appears to discourage efforts at considering another space station as truly a basecamp to the stars. Commercial launch vehicles should be able to service the ISS but that does not translate into the next generation space station. That next space station is to be international, if publicly, funded, as none of the present ISS partners appears ready to self-fund the next ISS.

The congressional action cutting off any official contact between NASA and the Chinese space program has particularly negative implications for the United States as the Chinese expand their international contacts in this area. In fact, the prohibition is not sustainable given its costs. The US is not in the situation that existed prior to Nixon’s opening to China when the US was, across the board, clearly superior to China technologically and economically, so the opening was truly at US discretion. Today, the US may still be ahead of China with regards to space technology but not by so much that, if a choice is forced, potential partners might choose China rather than the United States. Their decisions might be driven by their experience with unilateral US decisions changing ISS designs. For states with significantly smaller space budgets, US unilateral changes severely strain and disrupt their budgets.

Talking in terms of “ISS Next” would be unrealistic by most, but the reality is if there is no action now—even just preliminary talks about who may be interested—the next space station will only be the Chinese version. Building an international project of this magnitude will be a process fraught with pitfalls and bruised national prides, so one needs to start the conversation now without restrictions as to who joins or not. China’s building of a space station does not preempt the field: remember in human terms outer space is infinite and even in Earth orbit there is room for many (assuming the debris problem is abated). To build a space civilization, there needs to be multiple space stations, whose redundancy allows for better learning and spreads the risks of space across multiple venues. The boomers grew up with The Jetsons and other images of the future, and one major part was the normalcy of the space age in those images. Recapturing that dream demands habitats, commercial or otherwise, in orbit but reaching out BEO (beyond Earth orbit) demands we prepare the base camps that will make such visions possible.