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ISS spacewalk
Astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Thomas Pesquet perform a spacewalk earlier this month to install new solar arrays on the International Space Station. NASA needs to plan now for a successor to the ISS, which may not last beyond 2030. (credit: NASA)

Before you go, Administrator Nelson


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Every NASA administrator has an expiration date when they enter office, just like Major League Baseball managers or NBA coaches. The boundaries on their tenure can come with the end of the appointing president’s tenure: surviving across administrations is possible but usually limited to until a successor is nominated. More likely, the administrator either will leave office when the president does, or earlier due to issues with the administration—especially White House staff—or of their own volition.

Why is an Earth-orbiting space station crucial for furthering human exploration and exploitation of outer space? Space stations are “base camps to the stars.”

The point is not to dwell upon the administrator’s fate but to consider the question of each administrator’s legacy. James Webb, for example, is remembered as the administrator who led NASA through the Apollo program toward the promised land of the lunar surface, but left before the successful landing in July 1969. What is suggested here is a mission that the current administrator, Bill Nelson, should pursue: the next International Space Station (ISS) or, more properly, ISS-2.

At this point, the widespread understanding is that the next space station will be a private sector endeavor while NASA will focus on space science and exploration beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). The Artemis program is the first installment of the outward-focused NASA. The goal after the return to the lunar surface and operations there is human exploration of Mars and the outer solar system. LEO will effectively be left to the commercial sector including construction of any future space station.

China is already assembling its new space station. The first core section, Tianhe, was launched in April with supplies and crew to follow. The current configuration is understood to be smaller than the current ISS, which is expected to be abandoned in 2030 if safety evaluations allow operations to continue that long. The Chinese have solicited participation in their space station, but the United States is constrained by the Wolf Amendment that effectively prohibits NASA contacts with the Chinese space program.

The point is that the US after 2030 will likely encounter a world with no US-accessible space station. Commercial space participants are assumed to build the space stations of the future. But at this time, most appear as tourist destinations, hotels, and similar ventures. A general-purpose space station is unlikely at this point. The US Space Force may at some point need an Earth orbiting structure but is unlikely to acquire the funding for such.

Why is an Earth-orbiting space station crucial for furthering human exploration and exploitation of outer space? Space stations are “base camps to the stars,” as the historian Roger Launius described them. The physical location of the space station in outer space, whether LEO or farther out ,means that the most dangerous and difficult phase of space operations has been completed: launching to space. Once there, the solar system and beyond can, in principle, be more accessible, as the heavy lifting (literally) has been done. Otherwise, space exploration and exploitation becomes an unending cycle of lifting payloads to orbit and returning to Earth after some time. A space station can provide a logistics center serving a number of space-only vehicles rather than having everything return to Earth and then be launched back to orbit.

Constructing a truly ISS-2 is a task which builds on the strengths of existing space programs, the private sector, and emerging space programs.

The early configurations of the American space station had it surrounded by free flyers where commercial and research operations could occur without the presence of humans. Humans require life support and protection from space, meaning much of the equipment on board is for protecting humans rather than production or research. The free flyers are human tended rather than crewed vehicles. Humans come from the space station to service the free flyers, much of which is automated with humans as backups.

Such a space station has the potential to be truly international and eclectic in its operations. Participants come to the space station to complete tasks of benefit to them without necessarily being major contributors to the space station. ISS-2 will have an international crew to run operations and interact with the arrivals from Earth or beyond LEO. Such an arrangement creates an environment for fostering trade and science.

This brings one to consider what Nelson’s contribution to future space activities will be beyond his leadership of the ongoing US space program. The latter is sufficient for his legacy, what is suggested here builds on that base.

Constructing a truly ISS-2 is a task which builds on the strengths of existing space programs, the private sector, and emerging space programs. The first two are the framework within which space activities occur. The United Nations would normally be the vehicle for such a space program but without a driver is incapable of moving forcefully forward. NASA would not and cannot be the primary funder of ISS-2 but rather the equivalent of a venture capital investor. Startup funding would be allocated to jumpstart the endeavor. Other states and corporate investors would be brought on to build the ISS-2. Its purpose is to provide a starting point through which space participants could begin operations if new to space. One example is the United Arab Emirates, which has launched a mission to Mars but otherwise lacks a location in orbit to accomplish its goals.

For too long, everything has been a one-off arrangement. The ISS has survived but the cloud of free flyers once envisioned to accomplish multiple tasks, both commercially and scientifically, has not appeared. That failure is because space commerce remains mostly the creation and transmission of data. Space microgravity manufacturing remains a dream not a reality. Moreover, the ISS took so long to construct to some point of completion that investing in facilities there will have too short a lifespan before the ISS is deorbited.

The argument is for leadership, something that a NASA administrator can provide. Visions of future human space activities have for too long been singular enterprises: once accomplished, the next step represents a ramping up all over again. NASA’s role becomes one of facilitator so others can step forward. Elon Musk has a vision for space but not a continuing one beyond Mars while Jeff Bezos speaks for space colonies. Both pursue their individual vision of humans’ future in space: settling Mars or establishing viable colonies in space. Building a true ISS-2 becomes a major steppingstone toward such goals. This is not an argument for the rich to show the way but rather identifying others thinking about the future.

ISS-2 becomes a doorway to the future: not seizure of the “high ground” for military purposes but a venue that all can access. Emerging space states need not recreate the path taken by Russia, the United States, and China but can move forward according to their capabilities and desires. Space becomes not the final frontier but the open frontier. For a NASA administrator, there can be no higher goal than expanding humanity’s opportunities in space. Competition drove the early space age to the Moon, now competition can open the door to all because they have shown the way forward.


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