Having enough money for NASA to send American astronauts to Mars may depend on international partners renting out parts of the International Space Station for their own research, the chairman of the House Space Subcommittee said.
“I think our partners up there are going to have to pony up,” Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said. “They will have to lease out several floors on that big building flying around up there in space to help pay the bills and continue that research so we can be free to move onto human space flight.”
The International Space Station, which has been continuously occupied since 2000, has hosted more than 230 people from 18 countries in its lifespan and includes sleeping quarters, a gym, and a national lab, according to NASA.
The Trump administration in March recommended that NASA gradually transition some station requirements from government to private industry, with the shift being mostly completed by 2025.
Babin called that plan “a very good first step,” but warned that “it’s too soon to make any drastic decisions” and said that the ultimate decision to end or scale back U.S. involvement in the space station must come from Congress
“I think the administration wants at some point to take the bulk of the funding from the International Space Station and put that into human spaceflight for lunar operations and trips to Mars…but there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done at the International Space Station, a lot of medical research…[like] bone density, radiation exposure,” said Babin, who worked as a dentist for more than three decades.
Babin also talked about the “new faces” lobbying for space industry, what’s on deck in his subcommittee for the rest of the year, and how lawmakers can streamline regulations for space startups.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
I was down at Cape Canaveral last year and heard about how they’re ramping up to be able to launch 45 times a year and getting a bunch of new companies on base. Johnson Space Center is in your district, is it experiencing a similar build up?
There’s a lot going on in the space program, but I do have the distinct privilege to represent the center of gravity for the human spaceflight program…Johnson Space Center has and I think will continue to have a very vital role in the space faring efforts of United States.
In my role as chairman, I consider it part of my oversight responsibilities since it’s right there and I represent it, to make sure Johnson Space Center as well as all the others are operating at peak performance…for America to accomplish the lofty goals we set, NASA has to be healthy and running on all cylinders.
Is there any look at growing either the workforce or infrastructure or anything at the center in your district?
Stay tuned, I should say, because I can’t say there’s enormous numbers of buildings being built, but there’s certainly a lot of research and testing. They just had the James Webb space telescope there for a lot of testing…A lot of things are happening, it’s a very exciting time to be affiliated and working in the space program.
As companies begin working on space tourism, are you looking at using Johnson training facilities for non-government astronauts?
I can’t say we’re having exactly those conversations per se…but I will tell you this: this administration is very serious about our space program, and I can tell you that part of anything that’s going to happen in future of the space program will be public-private partnerships. This is going to be a very key component of us going forward in space and whether it be a lunar mission, the International Space Station, satellites, robotics, future trips to Mars, space tourism — a lot of this is going to be shouldered by private commercial companies who are absolutely making game changing developments in their programs. Our 2018 NASA re-authorization bill has provisions to do just this, which is support public private partnerships.
There was some talk at the Humans to Mars conference earlier this month that the U.S. can’t have two major space programs. Will funding for the International Space Station have to be cut to really make progress on something like missions to moon or Mars?
We actually have a full Science, Space and Technology hearing that will hopefully shed some light on this topic. The administration’s International Space Station plan is a very good first step and it gets the conversation started, but it’s too soon to make any drastic decisions about the International Space Station.
I think the administration wants at some point to take the bulk of the funding from the International Space Station and put that into human spaceflight for lunar operations and trips to Mars…but there’s still an enormous amount of work to be done at the International Space Station, a lot of medical research…[like] bone density, radiation exposure.
I think our partners up there are going to have to pony up, they will have to lease out several floors on that big building flying around up there in space to help pay the bills and continue that research so we can be free to move onto human space flight.
Congress will decide when it comes time to move away. It will be up to Congress and the authorizing committee to make the decision about when the International Space Station will be terminated or stepped down.
What other hearing topics are you planning for the rest of 2018?
Some other things we’re looking at…are program and project management at NASA, particularly addressing cost and schedule overruns on some projects, notably the James Webb telescope. We’re looking at this very closely.
Also space situational awareness and space traffic management, we want to kind of dive into that much more. This is a very hot topic right now. Also spectrum allocation for space services. So stay tuned, there’s a lot going on.
We’re seeing the barrier to entry in space being lowered, including ride sharing on rockets. How does this new technology and the potential rise of new space entrants change the policy environment?
I have seen some really wonderful things. I made a trip to Mojave Air and Space Port a couple years ago, there are dozens of commercial companies out there who are doing some great fantastic things.
Some of these companies are absolutely changing the game with some of the developments…The cost is going down. I think as we’ve seen with some of the re-usability of rocketry. There are many new entrants, lots of new faces in the space business domestically and internationally. It’s been quite fantastic to see all the interest.
Congress is working to streamline regulations, remove barriers for new entrants,and ensure we do it all safely and affordably…We want folks to know around the world that our door is open, we’re hanging a sign out that says open for business…We don’t want you to be regulated to death by an overbearing federal government.
Are you seeing the number of lobbyists who come see you go up as more companies enter the space industry?
I’ve been in this job now going on three years and I’ve seen this going on the entire time that I’ve been up there, but I would have to say there are lots of new faces and a lot of interest.
Now that we’ve got authorizing legislation and we’ve got good appropriation as well — I hear a lot of people say we spend too much money on space, but there are thousands of items we have derived and technology and medicine and communications, on and on and on, things we use everyday that have come out of our space program.
Because the president is so interested in national security and rebuilding the military, everything we do in civilian space side is going to enhance the warfighter out there in a very dangerous world. We can not lose the high ground, it’s absolutely a necessity that America remains the premiere space nation in the world and I intend to make sure it happens at least on my watch as subcommittee chair
Do you have any other space priorities for 2018?
We’re going to have some hearings coming up on some of these important subjects…[like] slips and cost overruns…Under the leadership of [NASA Administrator Jim] Bridenstine, I think we have the opportunity to get a lot of these things to come to fruition.
Speaking of Bridenstine, he’s only been in office for about a week, and I think it’d be great to get a human exploration road map. That was actually due back in December of 2017, I’m hoping we see that road map coming to us.
NASA is a tremendous agency, one of a kind historical agency with unbelievable accomplishments. The pinnacle of human achievement has happened under NASA’s leadership and guidance…but there are certainly areas that will require work and I think it’s time to stop getting reports of this delay or that delay. It’s time to get things done.