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CQ Magazine: 2019 Budget - NASA

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Washington, March 12, 2018 | comments

By Jennifer Shutt, CQ

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration could soon begin to turn its attention away from the International Space Station and toward deep space exploration projects, including missions to Mars.

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In its $19.9 billion fiscal 2019 budget request, NASA proposed the United States cease direct federal investment in the International Space Station by 2025, in part so the agency can focus more on projects that will aid deep space exploration.

But the ISS isn’t going to become space junk or fall back toward Earth. NASA’s budget proposes a new $150 million per year account to encourage commercial development in Low Earth Orbit, or the area 100 to 200 miles off the Earth’s surface so that private sector partners can take over operations of the ISS or set up their own platforms in LEO — possibly both within the next seven years.

“As government-sponsored ISS ops wind down, NASA will focus toward other exploration priorities — as we do not in 2025 continue spending government dollars on that resource,” NASA Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter said. “We will be doing everything we can to make that successful and create an opportunity for NASA to move beyond Low Earth Orbit and focus on cislunar activities” — the scientific term for the area between the Earth and the moon — “and moving to Mars, eventually.”

NASA isn’t entirely sure what the commercial sector will want to do with the ISS or what it will want NASA to do before handing it off. NASA plans to hold a competition this year, with awards in 2020, that will find “creative ways” to enhance the commercial appeal of the ISS. Those pitches could include public or private modules for the ISS or free-standing platforms in Low Earth Orbit.

“I think we’re going to have to see what the demand is and how we can help enable that demand,” Hunter said during a press briefing on the budget request. “That is still quite a few years away, but we are going to start working on it this year and next year, in earnest.”

The proposed transfer of activities on the ISS will be in the forefront as Congress begins putting together the fiscal 2019 Commerce-Justice-Science spending bill in the coming months. Lawmakers in the past have given the program a sizeable chunk of change — $87 billion since 1993 — and NASA expects it will need between $3 billion and $4 billion annually through 2024 to keep it operating.

The chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee, Texas Republican John Culberson, says that while he is a big supporter of the commercial sector having a role in space, he doesn’t expect to fully hand over the ISS to private sector partners.

“There will be some commercial role in the station and I strongly support increasing the commercial sector’s role  . . .  but I’m quite confident the space station is not going to be transferred over to the private sector by 2025,” Culberson says. “It’s too important that we preserve NASA’s role in the station and I expect that will continue beyond 2025.”

In addition, this year’s request again proposes closing out NASA’s Office of Education and canceling five Earth Science programs. And Culberson once again expects to keep those programs intact when he begins working on a fiscal 2019 appropriations bill.

One new project cancellation could be the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, which was designed to study the nature of dark energy, exoplanets and infrared astrophysics. NASA included the project in its fiscal 2018 budget and plans to spend about $428 million before its proposed termination in fiscal 2019. Its cancellation is due to “significant cost and higher priorities within NASA.”

Unlike the other proposed cancellations in the White House’s budget request, WFIRST may actually be canceled. Culberson says he has some concerns about the project’s financial situation as well as its design.

“The cost overruns are a big source of concern and the adaptability of the telescope to search for nearby Earth-like planets is also a big concern,” Culberson says. “I believe very strongly in the mission of WFIRST, but I want to be sure that the costs are contained.”

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