International Space Station: Now what, NASA?

by Chris Zappone

There is a defensive ring to the NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s claim that Russia’s decision to pull out of the ISS won’t have an impact of the success of the station.

Bolden said no one country, including Russia, is “indispensible” in keeping the ISS in use. Yet, undoubtedly there are some hard questions being asked in Washington and Houston about the future of the ISS.

As space analyst Dr Morris Jones points out, this is a crucial period for the future of global space programs

This period when NASA is weak in vehicle infrastructure is the most strategic window to launch a blow to NASA’s space program. Russia would certainly understand this. NASA needs some crisis planning right now. It’s almost certain that there’s a lot more talk happening behind closed doors than we know.

The biggest risk is that the US, in a pinch, will choose to put resources into maintaining the status-quo with the ISS. NASA will be tempted to do this so it’s not embarrassed when and if China has its space station Tiangong-3 or Heavenly Palace aloft, scheduled for 2023. That would follow NASA’s current embarrassment of no longer being able to launch its own astronauts into space – a problem to persist until 2017 at the earliest.

But if NASA focuses too many resources on maintaining the status quo of the ISS, it will likely delay a serious stab at putting astronauts on Mars.

As the dynamics of space competition reshape along the lines of new geopolitical rivalries, the US will need to think long and hard about how it can show leadership in space. The clearest way is a manned mission to mars. This is not a new idea. My 1980 World Book Encyclopaedia set includes a detailed graphic on what a mission to Mars would look like. NASA engineers and planners fully expected to head to Mars after the successful Apollo program to the moon.

But NASA’s interplanetary budget became a victim of the budget issues of the 1970s, when a recession and the gas crisis were in full swing. Not only was the budget cut but the momentum slowed and the nation’s attention began to drift from space programs.

It will be interesting to see if the pressure NASA is coming under from the Russians and Chinese produces the will to push on to the next planet. Recall that the catalyst for the Russian to announce the ISS pull-out began with a move in the US to break the monopoly Boeing and Lockheed Martin have on military satellite launches. Any credible disruptor force to the cozy space industry in the US could unleash the kind of competition that benefits the overall program. But the main thing is for the US space program not to focus on the short-term need at the expense of the long-term strategy.