The Trump administration is preparing to end support for the International Space Station program by 2025, according to a draft budget proposal reviewed by The Verge. Without the ISS, American astronauts could be grounded on Earth for years with no destination in space until NASA develops new vehicles for its deep space travel plans.
The draft may change before an official budget request is released on February 12th. However, two people familiar with the matter have confirmed to The Verge that the directive will be in the final proposal. NASA says it won’t comment on the request until it’s released. “NASA and the International Space Station partnership is committed to full scientific and technical research on the orbiting laboratory, as it is the foundation on which we will extend human presence deeper into space,” a NASA spokesperson said in a statement to The Verge. “We will not comment on any leaked or pre-decisional documents prior to the release of the President’s FY19 budget, which is scheduled for February 12.”
Any budget proposal from the Trump administration will also be subject to scrutiny and approval by Congress. But even announcing the intention to cancel ISS funding could send a signal to NASA’s international partners that the US is no longer interested in continuing the program. Many of NASA’s partners still have yet to decide if they’d like to continue working on the station beyond 2024.
The International Space Station has been an ongoing program for more than two decades. It costs NASA between $3 to $4 billion each year, and represents a more than $87 billion investment from the US government. It’s become a major hub for conducting both government and commercial experiments in microgravity, as well as testing out how the human body responds to weightlessness.
NASA pledged to keep the International Space Station program funded through 2024, thanks to an extension made by the Obama administration in 2014. But after that, the station’s fate has been up in the air. Congress has openly discussed what to do with the ISS after its funding runs out, but has not made a firm decision on a plan. Many in the commercial space industry want NASA to extend the program again through 2028: the year that many consider to be the end of its operational lifetime. That would give NASA time to figure out a way to transition operations of the ISS to the commercial sector full-time or time for companies to establish a commercial module in lower Earth orbit. However, commercial companies have indicated they may not be ready to do this by 2024.
The NASA Transition Authorization Act that President Trump signed last year directed the space agency to come up with a way to transition the ISS away from mostly NASA funding. The plan was due to Congress by December 1st, 2017, however NASA did not release any public information as to whether or not it had delivered the report.
Congress and others are eager to get the International Space Station off of NASA’s dime, to help fund the development of vehicles needed to explore deep space. NASA has been developing both a giant rocket, the Space Launch System, and a crew capsule, Orion, to take astronauts beyond lower Earth orbit. But with Trump’s recent directive to return NASA astronauts to the Moon, the space agency is going to need a lot more hardware to pull off its human spaceflight plans. Going back to the Moon and establishing a more permanent presence there will require a lander, habitats, and more technology needed to keep astronauts alive. And NASA is facing flat budgets in the years ahead; getting rid of the ISS would potentially free up billions to help fund those technologies.
But canceling the ISS too early without a viable replacement could lead to a gap of human activities in lower Earth orbit. A similar scenario played out in 2011, when the Space Shuttle program ended. The Obama administration had canceled NASA’s initiative to return to the Moon, known as the Constellation program, leaving the space agency without a way to get its astronauts into space. The plan was for commercial companies to step in and start sending astronauts to lower Earth orbit, instead. That idea evolved into the Commercial Crew program, where two companies — SpaceX and Boeing — have been working on spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS. But nearly seven years after the end of the Shuttle program, the companies aren’t ready to carry people to orbit and likely won’t be for another year or more. That has left NASA to rely on Russian vehicles to carry humans to space.
Losing the ISS would be a major loss to the commercial space industry, which has come to rely on the station to test out new technologies. Small satellite operators have launched their probes from the ISS, while the weightless environment of the lab allows companies to see if their hardware is ready for space. Bigelow Aerospace, which builds inflatable space habitats, has been testing out a prototype of one of its modules on the space station for nearly two years now. NASA has also used the station to learn more about how long-duration space flight affects the human body, key information that will be needed when people make the lengthy journey to Mars.
Additionally, the Commercial Crew program will be getting into full swing just as the ISS is about to end. A recent government audit found that both SpaceX and Boeing won’t be certified to start sending astronauts to the ISS until late 2019 or early 2020. That gives them just five years to do regular runs to the space station.
Beyond all of its scientific and commercial benefits, the ISS has been a cornerstone of international cooperation. NASA operates the ISS in partnership with Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, and astronauts from Canada, Europe, and Japan have all lived on the station. It’s possible NASA could get those same benefits by partnering with other countries on an ambitious lunar return, but this move would sacrifice what has become a staple of the US space program.
Update January 25th, 12:34PM ET: This article was updated to include a comment from NASA.