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Defunding the ISS might just help get us to Mars

From Engadget - February 15, 2018

On the other hand, not only does the current administration want to cut funding for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which would hunt for exoplanets and dark matter, it also wants to defund the International Space Station after 2024, when the US's current commitment to the multinational project expires. Instead, Trump's team hopes that a consortium of private businesses will take over running the station come 2025. The problem is, nobody really knows how (or even if) that would work.

But do not worry just yet, according to NASA documents obtained by the Washington Post, it's not as if the ISS is going to come crashing out of the sky unannounced in the middle of the next decade. "The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that timeit is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform," the document states. "NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit."

Congress has long grappled with what to do with the aging station, which is coming up on 18 years of service. While President Obama extended federal funding to the ISS by a decade in 2014, the debate over what to do with it after that remains a sticking point. During a House Subcommittee on Space meeting in 2017, advocates argued that the station should be privatized in order to keep it operational past 2024.

"The ISS has really been an amazing platform," Dr. Ellen Stofan, NASA's Chief Scientist from 2013 to 2016, told Engadget. "What we have achieved as an international community with the ISS, I think is amazing on many fronts -- obviously as an international tool of showing how countries can get along in space, when they ca not get along necessarily on the ground."

"We have done a lot to show that microgravity is a really interesting environment that has a lot of potential that we just fully do not understand," she continued "To give you one example, some bacteria become more virulent in space. Some become less virulent. There are basically genes switching on and off in response to microgravity, in ways that you can certainly argue we really have not had enough time to fully investigate."

In fact, NASA has made intriguing advancements in a variety of fields, from the effects of microgravity on combustion to the growth of protein crystals, which is of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry, and especially what microgravity does to the human body, critical information we will need to know if we are ever going to successfully send people on an eight-month trip to Mars.

"We have learned an awful lot, and we have been putting that to use in terms of saying how do you plan to get humans out further into deep space," Stofan said. "The ISS has been the ideal test platform for that."

However, this scientific progress comes at a cost. Keeping the station running requires an annual investment of $3 to $4 billion and totals more than $87 billion since its inception in 1993. What's more, the US has already spent an additional $136 million on a 10-year contract with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) to manage non-NASA research aboard the station.

In July of last year, NASA extended that contract to 2024 at a further cost of $60 million. However, earlier this year, NASA's Office of Inspector General released audit findings stating that CASIS was severely underperforming despite the fact that, "much of the ISS's future success as a research platform for non-government entities hinged on CASIS's ability to attract sufficient funding from private users."

Instead, Stafon believes the more prudent course of action is to take the ISS budget and apply it towards getting people progressively farther from Earth; first to the moon and then to Mars. "In the fiscally constrained budget environment we are in, NASA ca not expect another three to five billion dollars that it's gonna take to get humans beyond low earth orbit," she explained. "So you have to say, unless we wanna stay in low earth orbit forever, we are gonna have to take that wedge of money and apply it [to deep space research]."

We'd be buying probably Russian rides to the Chinese space station, which just sounds like a geopolitical disaster.

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