National Space Society, a nonprofit organization that promotes (among other things) space settlement, has happily endorsed a few key pieces of U.S. vice president Mike Pence’s recent July 6 speech at Kennedy Space Center. The group is particularly hopeful about Pence’s call for constant human presence in low Earth orbit, which the group sees as a key milestone in future space settlement.
“To the best of my recollection, this is the first time a sitting vice president has called for a ‘constant’ human presence in LEO,” Dale Skran, NSS VP, told The Downlink in an email. “This also may be the first time that a sitting vice president has called for America to settle space. NSS advocates for the exploration, development, and settlement of space, so Pence’s use of the term ‘settlement’ is a big step forward for NSS and other groups in the Alliance for Space Development that advocate for space settlement.”
Humans have maintained a presence in LEO since 2000 aboard the ISS. But the space station is slated for retirement in the next decade — Skran said its life may be extended to 2028 or beyond. What happens to the ISS at that point remains to be seen. It may be sold off to commercial firms looking to expand manufacturing in space or for further pharmaceutical research. NSS is hoping commercial modules can be attached “to form the core of future commercial LEO stations,” Skran said.
But to date, NASA has not committed to continuing ISS National Laboratory operations after the ISS is retired. The ISS National Lab a segment of the ISS that the U.S. controls.
“It’s important to remember that although NASA officials often talk about a transition to commercial stations, there is no concrete plan and no budget to support his transition,” Skran said. “When a significant line item of perhaps $500 million appears in post-ISS NASA budgets to support the ISS National Laboratory in commercial LEO stations we will know that NASA has an actual plan to avoid a disastrous gap in commercial and scientific work in LEO.”
That’s part of the reason why NSS has called for a “gapless transition” of operations to a new, and potentially commercial, space station. If NASA fails to implement a new plan for the National Lab on a future space station, the U.S. risks falling behind in a newly invigorated space sector.
It should be noted that China is planning to build a large-scale space station sometime in the 2020s, and the country’s space agency has said it’ll open up the station to commercial entities. However, geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China make future collaboration unlikely.
“The end of the ISS program will result in the loss of a host of valuable capabilities and activities that promote commerce, science, space operations, and space settlement,” NSS said in a position paper released in 2015. It said the threat of such a gap in access to the ISS National Lab will have a “chilling effect” on commercial and scientific efforts that currently utilize and rely on the ISS’s microgravity environment.
“An actual gap of years may result in an entire generation of entrepreneurs and scientists moving away from continuing to build on the progress already made on the ISS,” NSS said.
It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. has allowed a gap in space operations to widen. Skran pointed to the Shuttle program, which was closed in 2011.
“The U.S. Space program suffered greatly and continues to suffer from the ‘gap’ in human spaceflight capability created when the Shuttle program was shut down without any replacement being available,” Skran said. “Pence’s call for a ‘constant’ LEO presence echos the NSS position that we need a ‘gapless’ transition from the ISS to future commercial LEO stations.”