The International Space Station (ISS) has been orbiting Earth for almost two decades, and just like that old Buick in your garage, it’s getting more expensive to keep the thing running. So, NASA might cut its losses in a few years to pump more cash into other space exploration initiatives.
U.S. Rep. Brian Babin, chair of the House Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space, noted during a recent hearing on the station’s fate that keeping the system online beyond its set 2024 decommission date could eat up too much of the space agency’s budget — especially as NASA pushes off to Mars and eyes potential new moon missions.
“We ought to be aware that remaining on the ISS [after 2024] will come at a cost. Tax dollars spent on the ISS will not be spent on destinations beyond low Earth orbit, including the moon and Mars. What opportunities will we miss if we maintain the status quo?”
When it comes to the budget, Babin’s not wrong. NASA already extended the station’s life to 2024 (it was originally supposed to wrap up in 2020), and it’s estimated to cost around $3.5 billion per year to keep the thing online right now. Considering NASA’s entire budget clocks in at around $19 million, that’s a whole lot of cash. In regard to the space agency’s exploration budget, the ISS line item knocks out about half of it every year. Development of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule make up the rest.
So, if NASA ever wants to pump more cash into space exploration, the money has to come from somewhere. It’s a shame, but the ISS isn’t getting any younger. There has been buzz about a potential partnership with private space firms to keep the lights on at the ISS, and everyone from China’s space agency to companies like Bigelow Aerospace are eyeing ways to set up new stations in the next decade. So, there will be space stations up there for astronauts to catch as a way station in the future.
It’s just going to take everyone working together to figure out what form that might take, and how (and who) will be paying for it all.