This week, a car-sized scale model of the International Space Station is hanging from the ceiling of the Regency Ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington. It’s positioned toward the back of the room, so it doesn’t block the view of a bank of six TV cameras. Bathed in purple lights, the grayish behemoth lurks out of sight and nearly out of mind.
On the ballroom floor, more than 1,000 space industry contractors, researchers, students and policy types are gathered for the annual ISS Research and Development Conference, a four-day celebration of the $3 billion-a-year orbiting lab and outpost. And, well, they’re all exhibiting symptoms of a bit of a mid-life crisis.
The ISS runs out of congressional money and authorization in 2024, and NASA policymakers are trying to figure out what comes next. Officials from the space agency are writing a final report on the station’s future, to deliver to Congress by December. Among the options: renovate the solar panels and keep it flying until 2028, turn the whole thing over to a private buyer, break it up into pieces and auction them off to various commercial firms, or let it slowly descend into the Earth’s atmosphere and leave a fiery trail in the sky.
The uncertainty over the ISS’s future was no more obvious when rock-star entrepreneur Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, took to the stage for an hour long Q&A with NASA’s ISS program manager Kirk Shireman on Wednesday. Musk has revolutionized the space industry by building reusable rockets that will soon make it cheaper and easier to get cargo and people to the ISS and beyond.
But asked about the ISS’s future, Musk replied meekly: “We have to educate the public about the awesomeness of the space station.” Musk said private firms could one day use the station to beam internet signals to remote parts of the world or keep tabs on dangerous storms, droughts or crop failures—something satellites already do now.
Musk’s enthusiasm kicked up a notch when he described what he really wants to do in space. “If you want to get the public really fired up, you need to get a base on the moon, and then Mars,” Musk said to lusty cheers from the space-partisan crowd.
Another space industry titan, Robert Bigelow—CEO of Bigelow Aerospace—agrees that the US needs to go back to the moon because China might get there first, and then start making money from the mineral resources on the lunar surface. “From a China and a competition standpoint, going to moon makes more sense,” said Bigelow. “If we are going to execute something grand in a reasonable amount of time, we need to do it in a single administration.”
Bigelow’s Las Vegas-based firm has developed an inflatable habitat called BEAM that is attached to the station to test if it can protect astronauts from both debris and radiation. But both Bigelow and Musk really want to use the ISS to get somewhere else—like the moon or Mars. Congress and federal auditors said in 2014 that NASA needs to figure out how to get the ISS to generate more private income if it’s going to survive past 2024.
But the commercialization game still seems stuck in startup stage. Presenters talked about space station deals to develop new Tupperware food containers or 3-D printed medical devices for astronauts. And the big announcement before Musk’s talk was a $1 million contest/partnership with Target to research how to grow sustainable cotton plants in space—small potatoes for a massively expensive orbiting bus that even NASA officials admit is underutilized.
“We are looking for emerging markets in space,” says Robyn Gatens, [deputy director of the ISS division] (http://www.womeninaerospace.org/forms/events/conf2016/Robyn-Gatens.pdf). at NASA headquarters in Washington. “Today the demand is pretty small.” Gatens says the limiting resource is crew time: Astronauts are too busy keeping the station running, fixing stuff, maintaining power supplies and life support systems, and conducting an occasional science experiment. The Russians can only afford to put two of their three people up in space, so everyone else has to work hard to keep things tidy and flying.
There should be more time for commercial projects when NASA puts a third American astronaut on the ISS in 2019, Gatens says. By then, perhaps SpaceX will have made going to the space station as exciting for private companies as Musk’s dream of a moon base.