Is the White House Planning to Hold the Space Station Hostage?

Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images

The fate of the International Space Station (ISS) is clearly going to be a key priority for the 116th Congress. On Tuesday, Senator Cornyn (R-TX) introduced the first legislation of 2019 addressing this topic, the Advancing Human Spaceflight Act (S. 584). This builds on a large body of prior work by both House and Senate legislators throughout 2018, including hearings, public statements, and proposed legislation—most notably Senator Cruz’s Space Frontier Act of 2019 (S. 3277) and Representative Babin’s Leading Human Spaceflight Act (H.R. 6910)—addressing the future of American human presence in low-Earth orbit (LEO) in the next decade and beyond.

While there is still much to decide about how the United States and its international partners should manage the ISS beyond 2024, there is widespread agreement on what a worst-case scenario might look like. At least for U.S. policymakers, the worst-case scenario involves deorbiting the ISS in 2025 for any reason before another capability is in place, leaving crewed spaceflight in LEO to the Chinese government and their international and commercial guests for the foreseeable future.

Indeed, the Republican and Democratic leadership of the committees of jurisdiction—Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Representatives Brian Babin (R-TX) and Ami Bera (D-CA)—clearly expressed their commitment to preserving U.S. leadership in space.

Given this persistent and sustained attention focused on the future of the ISS and the desire to prevent a worst-case scenario by prematurely deorbiting the ISS and leaving human spaceflight in LEO to China, it is reasonable to speculate about the kind of reception they will get from the White House. Has the administration taken a public position that will be difficult to square with congressional intent?

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaking at CSIS on July 23, 2018. Photo: Joel Kowsky / NASA

The root of this question comes down to language that appears in NASA’s FY 2019 Budget Estimates, released last February, language that some have taken as proof that the administration wants to end “direct federal” support for the ISS in 2025. The phrase appears three times in the 700+ page report: first, in a message from the then-acting NASA administrator, once in a summary of a proposed exploration campaign, and once in plain text. Recognizing the necessary incompleteness of summaries, we turn to the primary mention in the section detailing plans for the ISS: “Direct federal support for ISS under the current NASA directed model will end in 2025, though industry could potentially continue to operate certain elements or capabilities where NASA is one of many customers” (emphasis added).

The first half of the statement can be read as setting a goal of ending the current government-owned, government-operated (GOGO) management structure. A solution that makes federal support to ISS “indirect” or even changes the nature of “direct federal support”—perhaps by involving other government agencies – would meet the strict requirements laid out in NASA’s FY 2019 Budget Estimates.

A government-owned, contractor-operated (GOCO) model, such as the one used for management of the Space Shuttle toward the end of the program, would still fall within the policy guidelines laid out in the budget. Given the shift to similar structures for LEO cargo and crew transportation, it is not unreasonable to imagine interest in extending this trend to other LEO activities.

The only thing that the language seems to require is that whatever [ISS funding] mechanism is in place by 2025 be different than the one in place today.

It’s possible, however, that the administration is not being quite so prescriptive in its suggestions. Moving away from the existing GOGO model could mean moving to a different sort of public-private partnership model, including contractor-owned facilities operated by either the government or by contractors. Similarly, any one of a number of hybrid, quasi-governmental organizational structures might be appropriate. The budget leaves room for interpretation about whether a new management structure would be needed for all ISS elements or just some. The only thing that the language seems to require is that whatever mechanism is in place by 2025 be different than the one in place today.

The 2019 NASA budget request applies this language about changing ISS support mechanisms only to station operations and maintenance. The deliberate choice to leave cargo and crew transportation to LEO out of this transition discussion does more than suggest that NASA anticipates supporting LEO logistics after 2025 (on whatever platforms may be in use then). It also means that the amount of budgetary impact an ISS transition must have is not the entirety of the roughly $4.5 billion in the LEO and Spaceflight Operations budget. Rather, the ISS transition language refers only to the $1.5 billion spent directly on ISS operations every year.

This reading of the language is consistent with other written documents, such as NASA’s International Space Station Transition Report and the later National Space Exploration Campaign Report, which both speak of the intent and desire to maintain an American human presence in LEO beyond 2024. It is also consistent with the public statements and hearing testimonies of administration officials, including NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. It is a view supported by the prepared public remarks made at the annual meeting of the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research last October by both Office of Management and Budget program examiner Sam Black as well as then-deputy executive secretary of the National Space Council Jared Stout. The message from NASA and the administration has been clear and consistent: U.S. astronauts will continue to live and work in LEO going forward.

From this, it seems unlikely that the administration was hinting at possible termination of American human presence in LEO in 2025. It is fair, however, to ask if the administration may be trying to promote a course of action that will likely result in a failed transition. Has the NASA budget set out unachievable goals, and will failure to meet those objectives automatically result in the complete collapse of American human presence in LEO?

Figuring out which of these transition paths will work is a matter of ongoing debate and should be at the forefront for decisionmakers in both the White House and Congress. But even before those details emerge, it is important to ask whether failure to execute a successful transition automatically results in a complete end to U.S. human spaceflight activity in LEO. It is fair to suppose, based on the public statements of NASA and others, that there is no plan to “abandon LEO.” It is also worth noting that while there is a lot of discussion about “balancing LEO and exploration activities,” very little has been said about how large a budgetary impact an ISS transition must make for it to be successful.

If there were a scenario in which a different ISS funding structure was put in place and it freed up only a portion of NASA’s spending on ISS operations and maintenance, could we suppose that the plan would be to terminate U.S. human presence in LEO? Or would we expect to see NASA further compress costs for either the ISS or exploration so that both could continue?

The discussion of transition is not an attempt to take the ISS hostage contingent on some spectacularly optimistic vision of LEO industrialization

In testimonies and public statements, NASA and others have reiterated their commitment to maintaining a U.S. human presence (however described) in LEO, as have NASA’s international and commercial partners. NASA has not indicated any interest in wholesale termination of LEO transportation spending in 2025, implying that they are planning on having a LEO destination of some sort to support. Finally, NASA has not set particular “red lines” for transition objectives in terms of budget. From these signals, it is reasonable to assume that the discussion of transition is not an attempt to take the ISS hostage contingent on some spectacularly optimistic vision of LEO industrialization.

Congress has been at pains over the last year to remind NASA and the White House that the final determination of the fate of the ISS resides not with the executive, but with the legislative branch. Any successful transition will likely be complex and challenging, requiring the engagement and buy-in of a wide array of stakeholders. Cooperation between the White House and Congress does not guarantee a successful transition, but friction will almost certainly produce failure.

While the ultimate decision on the fate of the ISS may rest with Congress, we cannot escape the fact that nature and misfortune (and orbital debris) could end up making a lot of choices for us. Whatever plans emerge for a change in the operating model in 2025, it is irresponsible to suppose that the alternative is an indefinite extension of the status quo. Even as a simple matter of contingency planning, we need to think about the future. The discussion leading up to 2025 will help all of us understand our options for maintaining and extending human presence in space over the next several decades.

The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Aerospace Security Project.