The financial future of the International Space Station

On January 28, 2014

ISS

Earlier this month NASA announced that the International Space Station (ISS) had been granted a life extension. On track to end operations in 2020, it will now keep humming until 2024. It is, on the whole, good news: we may not realize it but research done on the ISS trickles down to benefit us Earth-bound citizens in many ways. But there’s a tradeoff, and that’s the financial side of the life extension. Is keeping the ISS going another four years a worthwhile, and financially sound, decision? This isn’t an easy question to answer, and certainly not one with an obvious answer.

A brief history of space stations

Space stations aren’t a modern concept. In 1869, American novelist Edward Everett Hale wrote a short novel called The Brick Moon, in which a 200-foot sphere is launched into orbit with people on board. In the early 20th century, pioneers in the field of rocketry like Wernher von Braun imagined space stations to be the jumping off point for mission to the Moon and Mars. But things worked out differently, and rather backwards in a manner of thinking. NASA went to the Moon first then explored the space station concept with Skylab in 1973, a station it abandoned the following year. The Soviet Union also pioneered its own space station in the 1970s. Salyut 1 was launched in 1971, and the more sophisticated and modular Mir station began orbital assembly in 1986.

NASA had been planning a second space station called Freedom while the Soviet Union was preparing an upgraded Mir, but both plans were cancelled and an international partnership established. In 1993, the International Space Station program began as a cooperative effort between the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada.

The first piece of what has become the ISS, the Russian Zarya control module, was launched four years behind scheduled in November of1998. Two years later, the first crew arrived. It’s been continuously occupied while new hardware, modules, and solar arrays have been added. At the moment, the ISS about the size of a football field.

The cost of the ISS

And it hasn’t been cheap. With so many international partners and parts of the puzzle – like NASA’s space shuttle and the Russian Soyuz launches that have been the most frequent rides to orbit for astronauts – it’s hard to pin down the cost.

The European Space Agency has given an estimated total cost of €100 bn (slightly less than $140 bn) in the nearly 30 years since the project started. ESA adds that the European share is about €8 bn, which is less than the price of a cup of coffee per European citizen per year.

The American cost has been bigger. In a 1998 testimony before the House of Representatives, Allen Li (Associate Director, Defense Acquisitions Issues, National Security and International Affairs Division) estimated the total cost of the ISS program to NASA at $96 bn. In 2012, NASA spent an estimated $2.78 bn on the ISS. Its request for FY 2014 is a little more than $3 bn; the agency foresees requesting around the same amount per year until 2018. At the moment, NASA is also paying $70 m per seat for its astronauts to ride in Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft to the station, a necessary cost until either NASA or one of its commercial partners develops a reliable man-rated launch system, which could happen as early as 2017. As a reference, NASA’s total funding request for FY 2014 through 2018 is about $17.7 bn.

So let’s ask the question of whether the ISS is worth $3 bn of NASA’s relatively small funding per year over the next four years. It’s absolutely true that the research done on the International Space Station benefits everyone on Earth. Arguably the greatest benefit is in medical field. Technology developed for the ISS has led to breakthroughs in neurosurgery, cancer research, and respiratory aides. Space technology research on the whole has healthcare benefits, like Lasik corrective eye surgery and better mammograms. Right now astronauts are also experimenting with supercritical water and its strange properties that might change the way big cities deal with sewage.

The cost of planetary exploration

But $3 bn could also see a host of planetary mission, and really good ones. Let’s take the cost of the Curiosity rover as a benchmark. The mission cost NASA (and the American taxpayers) $2 bn over nine years, which works out to less than the cost of an afternoon movie per person per year. It gave thousands of people jobs, saw some really incredible technology come to life, and a little more than halfway through its primary mission the rover has met its goals and made some fantastic discoveries about our home planet.

There are plenty of other places in the solar system NASA could visit for the cost of keeping the ISS running for one year, like Jupiter’s moon Europa. The moon has more freshwater than the Earth locked away under its icy crust, and recently scientists found there are jets of that subsurface water spewing through cracks. We could fly through that spray of water and learn loads about the planet. There’s also Saturn’s moon Titan, which might have the same composition as the early Earth, which would in turn shed light how life arose on our planet. We haven’t visited the outer planets, Neptune and Uranus, since Voyager 2 passed by them in the 1980s. It would be wonderful to go learn more about these distant worlds.

Europa, Titan, and the ice giants are just a few worthy deep space targets, and missions to these bodies don’t necessarily come with a $3 bn price tag. to visit. Curiosity (or, properly, the Mars Science Laboratory mission) is a flagship mission, meaning it’s in the highest price category. Others fall in different classes with lower price tags, like the New Horizons mission that’s about a year and a half from its close encounter with Pluto. The first spacecraft to visit everyone’s favourite dwarf planet cost around $700 m. It’s less sophisticated than Curiosity, but it’s better than nothing.

Going forward

The question of whether its worth keeping the ISS up and running for another four years, and potentially longer, has no good answer. Since both manned and unmanned spaceflight see technology trickle down into everyday life, each person will have an opinions based on individual interests. Proponents of manned spaceflight will certainly want to see the station stay aloft as long as possible while proponents of deep space exploration would probably prefer to see a barrage of smaller missions explore distant planets and moons. In either case, we’ll keep learning more about space and the universe around us, and that’s something that can make just about everyone happy.

Sources are linked within the text. For more, check out this interactive timeline of the ISS’s history.

Image: The ISS in 2011. Credit: NASA

About Amy Shira Teitel

Amy Shira Teitel has an academic background in the history of science, and now works as a freelance science writer specialising in space history. She has a blog, Vintage Space, on Popular Science, writes for Discovery News and Motherboard, among others, and is also a video host at Scientific American. You can find her on Google+