The Trump Administration wants to free up NASA’s budget by withdrawing funding for the International Space Station as soon as it is possible, namely in 2024. The plan is to free up resources for higher priority, deep space missions such as Mars. In doing so, however, the United States might lose invaluable opportunities to accomplish new science. It may also risk grounding American astronauts for years as there would be no other opportunities for them to leave Earth.
The news was reported by The Verge, which gained access to a draft budget proposal officially due to be released on February 12th. Insiders suggest that the directive will make it to the final proposal, which will nevertheless have to be passed by Congress.
Every year, NASA spends $3-4 billion on the International Space Station, a massive collaborative effort of which the United States has always been a part of. Since the project’s inception, NASA has spent more than $87 billion on the ISS and related missions. All that money was put to good use enabling NASA and partners to perform novel science while also sustaining commercial activities.
The space station is a home in orbit for up to six people. Astronauts have lived in space every day since the year 2000, performing research that could not be done on Earth otherwise. Over 100 science experiments have been performed on the ISS, ranging from bone studies to materials research. Over the years, the US government has also been able to dock spacecraft with the space lab or launch satellites into orbit from there.
Thanks to the ISS, we’ve come to learn, for instance, that microgravity causes significant changes in the human body and biology. Weightlessness seems to alter brain structure, switches on and off genes, impairs vision, and causes muscle atrophy.
Recognizing the value of the country’s involvement with the ISS, in 2014, the Obama Administration extended funding up to 2024. From that date onward, it’s no longer clear if the US will remain on board with the project, however. In fact, judging from recent information, this current Presidential Administration isn’t keen at all continuing with this deal. In 2028, the International Space Station will reach the end of its operational lifetime.
Since he came to office, President Trump has set forth directives which direct NASA to focus on sending American boots back on the moon but also build an outpost on the lunar surface. The base would serve as a stepping stone towards the far grander goal of landing people on Mars.
The White House wants to achieve these goals, all while keeping NASA’s budget flat over the coming years. Since the money has to come from somewhere, cutbacks have to be made, and the ISS looks like a good place to start, in the minds of some politicians at least.
Canceling America’s involvement with the ISS could end up doing far more harm than good. When the Space Shuttle program was canceled in 2011, NASA hoped that private companies would take up the reins and soon come up with a replacement. SpaceX and Boeing did indeed step forward but to this day they’ve yet to send people to the space lab on their spacecraft. Instead, hundreds of millions have been flowing to the Russians whose Soyuz rockets have exclusively taken care of all manned flights to the station. Also, canceling funding to the ISS to save money for some perceived grander goal could keep American astronauts grounded for more than a decade before they have the chance to fly on a ‘fancy’ deep space mission.
Another important consequence that doesn’t bode well for the country is that private American space companies will no longer have the opportunity to test their technology and perform missions. In the long-run, this will hurt American competitiveness. And none the least, by canceling its involvement in such a symbolic international collaboration can only send the wrong message to partners and allies around the world.