International Space Station.
Credit: NASA

“America’s Human Presence in Low-Earth Orbit” is the hearing topic today for the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

“The United States is committed to continuing its presence on and support for the International Space Station (ISS) to 2024. However, the Administration has stated its intention that direct Federal support for the ISS should end in 2025. This hearing will explore that choice, how we can determine the best policy outcome, and other essential questions about human spaceflight advanced by this discussion,” notes the Committee.

Go to video of hearing at:

Chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) made this opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

“The International Space Station (ISS) is the crown jewel of America’ human spaceflight program.

As a representative for Johnson Space Center, I am proud of the leadership role Johnson has with the ISS and American human space exploration in general. I am keenly aware of the importance of the ISS to the hard-working professionals of Johnson Space Center. For them, the ISS is more than just a program of record, it is part of their being. This is why I take, with the utmost seriousness, the questions our committee must address on future of the ISS and America’s human spaceflight program.

The Trump administration is a strong advocate for human space exploration and I support the administration’s renewed focus. I agree, in broad terms, with the human exploration plans the administration has outlined. I appreciate the administration’s invitation to discuss and mature plans for our civil space exploration program, including the ISS. However, we, as a Congress, have a responsibility to think through the issues on our own and reach our own conclusions, which is why we are here today.

Two main objectives

I believe that doing exploration right means that anywhere we establish a human presence in space we must fulfill two main objectives. First, we must make that presence sustainable. Second, we must use that presence as a jumping off point to extend our reach even further.

This discussion, along with maintaining continuity of purpose, are key themes in the 2018 NASA Authorization Act, recently passed out of this committee on a bipartisan vote. Section 202 of the act, on the ISS transition, reflects a balance. It provides authority and guidance to the administration to carry out the initial steps of its ISS transition plan, but does so on a limited basis. It explicitly limits authorization to carry out the initial exploratory steps of the administration’s plan to FY19.

Four criteria

Section 202 of the 2018 NASA Authorization Act is good policy that provides a strong foundation for Congress and the nation as we take our next steps with the ISS and America’s future human presence in low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Four criteria that we may consider for evaluating success of an ISS transition:

First, the United States must preserve its global leadership in space and this means preserving our international partnerships as we continue onwards.

Second, our presence in LEO should support our journey to the moon and beyond.

Third, staying in LEO should not preclude further human exploration for economic or other reasons.

Fourth, as necessary to meet our national interests, we should maintain a regular American human presence—and whether public or private, whether permanent or periodic—in LEO.

Lead and cooperate

I can tell you that “failure is not an option.” I can also tell you that there are not a lot of scenarios in which a few billion dollars per year can magically be added to NASA’s human spaceflight program. Therefore, we have only one option: we must figure out how to lead and cooperate with our private and international partners to make human presence in LEO sustainable. With commitment, we can successfully transition the ISS while maintaining American leadership in human spaceflight.

In closing, I am proud that America has led and will continue to lead the human exploration of the cosmos. I will do everything in my power as chairman of the subcommittee to support NASA and American leadership in human space exploration. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and look forward to their testimony.”

Long-term future

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, delivered the following opening statement, as prepared for delivery:

“Our nation faces important questions about future space exploration. Will the International Space Station (ISS) stop receiving federal support in 2025? If so, under what conditions? What is the future of America’s human presence in low-Earth orbit? Beyond that, what is the future of human presence on the Moon and Mars?

The ISS has been authorized and funded to operate until 2024. Decisions about the long-term future of the ISS impact the future of America’s human space exploration program.

Unless NASA’s budget is significantly increased, there are not enough funds both to maintain direct federal support for the ISS and return American astronauts to the surface of the moon in the 2020s. And without a sharp increase in funding for NASA, we cannot ensure American leadership in human deep space exploration in the next decade and beyond.

ISS transition plan

NASA announced an ISS transition plan at the end of March. According to the proposal, the United States should not continue direct federal support for ISS operation beyond 2024. The private sector—commercial space—may well pick up where NASA leaves off.

In addition to the transition of the ISS, a related but important question is the future of America’s human presence in low-Earth orbit. After 2025, should Americans maintain some human presence in low-Earth orbit, even on a limited basis? But, having an “American human presence in low-Earth orbit” does not necessarily mean continuing to operate the ISS. Discussing continued human presence and continued operation of the ISS are related, but distinct subjects.

Existing law can help guide this discussion. The 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act reaffirms the principle of “continuity of purpose.” It also establishes that extending human presence throughout the solar system is a long-term goal for NASA. It directs NASA to follow a “stepping stone” approach to exploration.

This involves expanding human presence from low-Earth orbit to the moon, from the moon to Mars, and then from Mars to other bodies throughout the solar system. The 2018 NASA Authorization Act was approved by the Science Committee on a bipartisan vote and the act supports the administration’s transition plan in FY 2019.

It is my hope that this hearing will help us evaluate the transition of the ISS and continued American presence in low-Earth orbit.”

Credit: Screengrab





Witness testimony:

Mr. William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator, Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, NASA

Dr. Bhavya Lal, Research Staff, Science and Technology Policy Institute for Defense Analysis

Dr. Elizabeth R. Cantwell, CEO, Arizona State University Research Enterprise (ASURE); Professor of Practice, School for Engineering of Matter, Transport & Energy, Arizona State University.

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