Opening Statement of Ranking Member Brian Babin at Space & Aeronautics Subcommittee Hearing on NASA's plans for ISS and future activities in LEO
The International Space Station is one of humanity’s highest technological achievements. As an internationally built and operated orbiting laboratory, the ISS conducts critical research that helps us both on Earth and in space. As a multi-national project, this engineering marvel illustrates the power of U.S. leadership on the frontiers of exploration.
NASA has worked hard to conquer the challenges of low-Earth orbit. We have learned how the human body reacts to the microgravity environment. We have grown food, crystalized proteins, launched satellites, and conducted scientific observations of the Earth and stars above.
During the 115th Congress, I introduced the Leading Human Spaceflight Act which, among other provisions, would extend the authorization of ISS from 2024 to 2030. I would note that this extension would not simply swap out dates. Rather, my bill would also call for an earlier termination of federal support for ISS if a commercial alternative is in place prior to 2030. It is vital to – not only our leadership in space – but also our national security that America maintain a continual, uninterrupted human presence in low Earth orbit. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the dais to ensure we prevent another damaging capability gap like the one we experienced at the conclusion of the space shuttle program.
All of that being said, it is important to note that our financial resources for space activities are limited and any decision on ISS extension will result in tradeoffs. NASA has previously estimated that the ISS will cost taxpayers between three and four billion dollars annually through 2024 — roughly half of NASA’s total human spaceflight budget. Each dollar spent on transportation to – and maintenance of – ISS is a dollar not spent on exploration beyond low earth orbit, whether it is to the Moon, Mars, or other destinations. Numerous reports from the National Academies and the NASA Inspector General have concluded that an extension of the ISS could result in a multi-year delay to future deep-space missions.
I proudly represent the Johnson Space Center, which manages both the ISS and Orion programs, so I am especially aware of the trades we have to make between low Earth orbit and deep space exploration.
Aside from today’s discussion of ISS, we will also hear from our witnesses about ongoing efforts to increase commercial activities in low-Earth orbit. NASA has engaged in a lot of work over the last three years to examine potential markets and the capacity for. They’ve commissioned think-tank studies, sought input from industry, and researched the various architectures at length. This work informed their recent announcement on ISS Commercialization last month. Our witnesses today will share their thoughts on how NASA can continue to work with industry to find opportunities to develop more commercial markets in low-Earth orbit.
Section 303 of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act directed NASA to conduct a transition report for ISS where NASA would be “one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit commercial human space flight enterprise.” A future where NASA is able to act as a customer and purchase a variety of services will allow the agency to focus on more ambitious deep-space missions and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses how this Committee can help take this step. Allowing NASA to serve as a customer rather than a developer of basic services is a fiscally responsible move that will benefit the taxpayer and industry alike.