The development is a hopeful sign that, despite foot dragging by Congress, a commercial replacement for the International Space Station (ISS) may well happen. The United States has a chance to avoid a “space gap” when the ISS reaches the end of its operational life, like the one that happened between the end of the space shuttle program and the first launch of the SpaceX commercial crew Dragon mission.
When Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineNASA-Canadian agreement demonstrates how Artemis is an international moonshot NASA selects the next Artemis moonwalkers while SpaceX flies a Starship First to break the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager dies at 97 MORE became NASA administrator, one of the questions confronting him was what to do about maintaining a presence in low Earth orbit after the ISS. The idea that he and experts at NASA have been pushing is to encourage private companies to build their own space station. NASA would provide needed support by pledging to become an anchor tenant for such orbiting facilities. However, the commercial space stations would also have to find private customers.
The problem is that Congress has been remarkably stingy when it comes to putting up real money for this approach. The fiscal 2020 budget request included $150 million for commercial space stations. Congress funded support for private orbiting labs for a grand total of $15 million. The fiscal 2020 budget request repeated the request for $150 million. Congress chose to be slightly more generous: $17 million.
It’s not that Congress is opposed to keeping a human presence in low Earth orbit. Indeed, as Space.com reports, the Senate version of the NASA authorization bill extends the operational life of the ISS to 2030. Considering the stream of science and technology discoveries that have flowed from the orbiting laboratory, it is not hard to see why. Early critics of the ISS, including the late James Van Allen, have been thoroughly discredited.
Congress does not seem to have any urgency about planning for a post-ISS future. The year 2030 is almost 10 years away. The elected politicians are doing what they do best, kicking the can down the road.
In the meantime, NASA is doing what it can, given the allocated resources, to help jump-start a commercial space station industry. An inflatable module called the BEAM, courtesy of Bigelow Aerospace, has been attached to the ISS for the past three years. Unfortunately, a number of factors, not the least of which has been the coronavirus pandemic, have obliged Bigelow to lay off its entire workforce. Bigelow is now seeking NASA funding for a free-flying space station created with its inflatable modules, ironically using space-agency-developed technology called TransHab.
Axiom Space has won the nod to attach one of its own modules to the ISS. Not waiting for Congress to cough up funding for NASA, Axiom has announced a facility to manufacture space station modules at the Ellington SpacePort in Houston. The company will also have private astronaut training facilities.
Besides employing 1,000 people, the new Axiom facility represents a commitment to creating a commercial space station industry. The fact that a company is willing to invest money to build the pieces of a private space station should have an effect on other stakeholders. Axiom should be able to attract commercial customers willing to pay for time spent in an orbiting research lab.
The positioning of the Axiom facility in Texas is no accident, either. The Texas congressional delegation, for obvious reasons, has been supportive of NASA and, increasingly, of the commercial space sector that has expanded its presence in the Lone Star State in recent years. Good old-fashioned politics that cause House members and senators to favor funding projects that mean jobs in their states will combine with sound space policy to help increase funding in future years.
It is also likely no accident that the Axiom facility is about a five-hour drive from the growing SpaceX spaceport in Boca Chica near the southern tip of Texas. No doubt SpaceX CEO Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskWorld’s richest people added .8T to their combined wealth in 2020 Trump ends Obama’s 12-year run as most admired man: Gallup Apple CEO ignored meeting request to discuss Tesla sale, Musk says MORE would be pleased to launch finished modules to space, using the mighty Starship rocket, and later crews and cargo.
In the midst of a pandemic, part of a space future is taking shape in South Texas. This time it’s being driven by the private sector. NASA had best jump on board or risk being left behind.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.