NASA safety advisers warn ISS transition plans of ‘dangerous trajectory’

WASHINGTON — NASA security advisers warn that the agency’s effort to seamlessly transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations is on a “brutal path.”

At a July 21 meeting of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, members said they were concerned that commercial stations being developed by NASA are unlikely to be ready in time before the ISS retires at the end of the decade , and that this effort suffered from inadequate budgets.

These plans, called Commercial Leo Earth Orbit (LEO) Destinations by NASA, “are on a precarious path to realization on schedule and within projected resources required to sustain a NASA LEO presence,” said Patricia Sanders, Chair of the Panel. “This area is important to us.”

NASA selected proposals in December from teams led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman for funded Space Act agreements to mature their designs for commercial space stations. The agency has a separate agreement with Axiom Space that grants that company access to a port on the ISS, where the company plans to attach a number of commercial modules that will later form the core of a standalone station.

However, Amy Donahue, a member of the panel, said that NASA plans to issue formal requirements for the use of these stations as late as late 2024, before the ISS retires in 2030, she said.

The concern the panel had, she said, was for the human evaluation of a commercial station, noting that the current timeline requires it to do so faster than any of the agency’s human space programs since Mercury. “It raises some questions about what NASA might do to mitigate the risk of missing that schedule,” she said. “From a risk perspective, it’s certainly a problem for us.”

The panel isn’t the first to warn that NASA’s timeline for replacing the ISS may not be achievable. A report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General last November, just before NASA presented its commercial space station awards, warned that a commercial broadcaster “is unlikely to be ready until well after 2030” and that NASA’s timeline to have one or more ready before 2030 is “unrealistic.”

Another problem is resources that support not only the development of the stations, but also their use by NASA. “There is no forecast or way to guarantee vendors the size of NASA’s business once a commercial lab becomes available,” Donahue said. “We also view it as likely that during the transition of operations from a fully funded government space station to a fully commercial space station, NASA will need to provide bridge funding for the duration of the time required to develop a robust commercial market. “

“In short,” she concluded, “NASA really needs to recognize the underlying reality and plan that maintaining a continuous human presence in orbit will require significant government investment now and in the future.”

Keeping the ISS operational through 2030 faces its own challenges. Another panel member, Mark Sirangelo, pointed to several issues that have dogged both NASA and the safety panel, from geopolitical tensions with Russia to cracks in a pressure shell in a Russian module.

“The ISS is now in its third decade and is feeling its age,” he said. “It constantly faces new challenges.”

The panel, he said, found no serious problems threatening the station’s operations, but urged NASA to expedite replacements of the aging spacesuits, whose technical problems currently prevent astronauts from spacewalking.

Some of these issues are beyond NASA’s control. Sirangelo cited the growing orbital debris population, which has greatly increased the number of close approaches or conjunctions with the station. “The number of conjunctions with the ISS has increased significantly and many times over the past two years,” he said.

Much of this stems from the November 2021 demonstration of a Russian anti-satellite weapon that destroyed the Cosmos 1408 satellite and created thousands of pieces of debris in orbits crossing the ISS. He said that as of June 1 this year, there have been 681 conjunction reports for the station. Of these, 505 were associated with debris from this ASAT demonstration.

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