The International Space Station (ISS) is barreling towards its expiry date, and NASA isn’t ready. Federal funding of the ISS might be cut off at the end of 2024, but without it, NASA won’t be able to study the health risks of spaceflight or test technology that will enable deep-space exploration.
A report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General predicts that many of NASA’s research goals will not be complete by 2025. Of 20 main human health risks under investigation, studies on at least 6 won’t be done by then. Of 40 technology gaps being addressed, at least 4 won’t be solved. Any delay or slip in scheduling could also thwart the 19 projects scheduled for completion during 2024.
The studies that will not be finished in time include research into how vision and motor functions degrade in zero gravity, risks of cognitive and behavioural problems, long-term life support in space, and space suits for longer missions, like a flight to Mars.
No stop to Mars
“For humans to go into space for long duration trips such as to Mars, these issues need to be solved – we can’t stop and recharge life-support halfway,” says Mary Lynne Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.
NASA is working on contingency plans in case these studies cannot be completed on the ISS, including figuring out how some of them might be testable on the ground. But an earlier report found that most of the highest-priority research requires at least some portion to be tested in space. Part of the reason to get rid of the ISS is to free up funds for NASA to go to Mars, but without this essential research, such a trip won’t be possible.
Then there’s the problem of who will take over the ISS if the US government stops funding it. A transfer to private ownership is one option currently being weighed up, but the OIG report questions whether this is feasible – it just costs too much money to operate in space. “The scant commercial interest shown in the Station over nearly 20 years of operation gives us pause,” the report says.
Dittmar says that it’s possible commercial interests will begin to assume some management of the ISS in 2024, with substantial government funding. But completely turning it over may be another story. “Someone will have to pay for increased maintenance costs as a result of ageing infrastructure while figuring out ways to reduce operational costs and generate revenue,” says Dittmar. “I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it’s challenging.”
An extension of government funding of the ISS might not be a perfect solution either. “NASA’s other option for the ISS – extension past 2024 under the current operating model or deorbit -also faces significant challenges,” the report says. For one, we don’t yet have a way to make sure debris from the ISS will land safely in the ocean if we end up bringing it down.
And continuing operations, as usual, would require continued support from the other space agencies involved: Russia, Europe, China, and Japan. That’s not guaranteed. The Chinese space station planned for operation in 2022 may pull some interest – and money – away from the ISS.