U.S. May Fall Behind on Space Research, Lawmakers Warn

Experts warn of potential problems with privatizing International Space Station

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, left, speaks as Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., listens during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee hearing on “Examining the Future of the International Space Station: Stakeholder Perspectives” on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Already in the midst of a trade war with China, some lawmakers worry that the United States may lose to the country in another realm — space innovation.

A Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee hearing this week  focused on the possible implications of turning the United States’ stake in the International Space Station over to private industry.

The Trump administration wants to cut federal funding to the space station by 2025. Meanwhile, China has announced that its space station will soon be open for business and invited countries from around the world to conduct research on board, said Sen. Bill Nelson, the ranking member on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who attended the hearing on Wednesday. Nelson is a former NASA astronaut.

“We cannot allow history to repeat itself,” the Florida Democrat warned, recalling when the Obama administration ended funding to the space shuttle program in 2011. Since then, U.S. astronauts have been relying on Russian transportation to fly them to the ISS.

Each seat for a U.S. astronaut on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft bound for the station could cost as much as $81 million by 2018, according to a 2016 report by NASA’s Office of Inspector General.

The NASA budget request for 2019, backed by the Trump administration, is partly an effort to free up funding to take Americans back to the moon. Scheduling and budgets for that initiative have not been announced.

In February, subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz of Texas blamed the decision to cut funding on “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget. Cruz reiterated in Wednesday’s hearing that it was telling that he agrees with Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the subcommittee’s ranking member, and Nelson — lawmakers from across the political spectrum — that cutting funding to the space station would be a bad idea.

“The American taxpayers have invested $100 billion into it. It would be foolish to waste that investment,” Cruz said.

A significant portion of NASA’s $3-4 billion yearly budget for the space station is spent in Cruz and Nelson’s home states.

Abruptly asking the private sector to take responsibility for the station would stunt the return on investment to the American taxpayer, said Cynthia Bouthot, a senior official with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space.

For example, she said, research on many breakthrough medications is performed in the station’s microgravity environment. A disruption in funding could slow development for these medications, she said, as well as advances in regenerative medicine — hearts and lungs that are being manufactured in this environment.

Many scientific research projects take six to eight years to complete, said Jim Chilton of Boeing Co. If investors and scientists foresee a lack of government funding to these projects in the near future, they may as well “pull the plug” on these projects now. Thus, science could “dry up” in as little as a year.

Bouthot added that as private investors see the prospects of breakthrough innovation occurring in space funded by the government, they will be willing to take on more of this investment themselves. However, this should be a much slower transition than what the NASA budget proposes.

“We are creating demand, we see a trajectory to a sustainable marketplace, but we need time for a smooth transition,” she said.

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