Space Station Extension May Cost More Than NASA Expects: Report

NASA’s anticipated $3 billion to $4 billion annual budget for the International Space Station is “overly optimistic”, a new report from NASA’s Inspector General says.

Transportation costs will likely rise when NASA uses commercial spacecraft to access the station instead of Russian Soyuzes, the report said. Also, if international partners don’t commit to extending the station four extra years to 2024, NASA will need to pick up more of the financial burden.

“While ISS program officials have been seeking ways to reduce costs and consolidate resources, it is unclear whether these efforts will be sufficient to address anticipated cost increases, particularly because the program does not expect to maintain any funding reserves over the next several years,” the report reads.

Expedition 38 crew members proudly sport their national flags in this March 2014 picture from the International Space Station. Pictured (clockwise from top center) are Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kotov, commander; Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata, Russian cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy, NASA astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin, all flight engineers. Credit: NASA

In January, the Obama administration approved NASA’s request to extend the ISS until 2024. At the time, NASA said the extension would be beneficial for science and also for the companies that will send spacecraft to the station, which right now appear to be SpaceX and Boeing. (NASA has been purchasing Soyuz seats since the shuttle retired in 2011, and U.S. flights are slated to start up again in 2017.)

There are 16 nations participating in space station operations, however, and any extension may require the approval of some or all of them. Political tensions with major partner Russia (which manages much of the station) have increased since the Ukrainian invasion crisis erupted earlier this year, prompting international condemnation. NASA cut most scientific ties with Russia in April, but preserved the station — an activity the agency says is proceeding normally, despite the crisis.

Besides political ramifications, the report points to technical issues with the ISS that could make an extension difficult. Its solar arrays are degrading faster than predicted, causing power limitations, and NASA has limited capability to lift large replacements parts to the station since the shuttle’s retirement.

Image above: Expedition 24 Flight Engineers Doug Wheelock (right) and Tracy Caldwell Dyson work to replace a failed ammonia pump module outside of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

Even the station’s promise of science return is proving to be a challenge. ISS United States laboratory manager Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) is facing “issues related to funding and patent licenses and data rights” that are “deterring commercial stakeholders from conducting research on the ISS,” the report notes.

The report suggests that NASA keep trying to secure commitments from the ISS partners to share station costs, and that the agency “prioritize the human health risks to long-term exploration” in terms of its scientific research. While the report praised NASA for taking its recommendations seriously, it chastised the agency for not having a list of risks to the ISS ready yet.

NASA’s spending on the ISS was $2.9 billion in fiscal 2013, with 43% of that money going to system operations and maintenance, and 34% to crew and cargo transportation. About 10% is allocated to research.

The report was signed by Paul Martin, the inspector general, and can be read in full at this link. This news report just skims the surface of what the actual report says, so we highly encourage you to read it.

Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is the senior writer at Universe Today. She also works for Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience, among others. Career highlights include watching three shuttle launches, and going on a two-week simulated Mars expedition in rural Utah. You can follow her on Twitter @howellspace or contact her at her website.

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