U.S. tilting toward private sector to replace aging ISS

The Yomiuri Shimbun

With China emerging as a major power in space, can the International Space Station — in its remaining years of operation — play a new role in an era of international competition hundreds of kilometers above Earth?

The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced a commitment to extend operation of the ISS by six years until 2030. The United States aims to smoothly transition to a commercial space station constructed by the private sector, and devote more of its own resources to exploration missions to the moon and Mars.

The United States strongly hopes Japan will support this extension of the ISS, which has embodied friendly East-West ties for decades.

“We look forward to supporting Japan’s own deliberations on extending operations of this remarkable laboratory,” Karen Feldstein, associate administrator of NASA’s Office of International and Interagency Relations, said during an online seminar on Japan-U.S. space cooperation on Jan. 27.

Declarations of support for this extension by nations participating in the ISS project will be essential for maintaining the station’s cooperative framework.

More than 20 years have passed since Japan, the United States, Russia, European nations and others began constructing the ISS in 1998. The huge orbiting laboratory is aging, and it is showing signs of wear. An air leak was detected in one section in 2019, and a hole was discovered in a robotic arm in 2021.

The United States is pressing ahead with its Artemis program to return humans to the moon’s surface, and it has a long-term goal of sending a manned mission to Mars. Construction of a new space station by a U.S. company is expected to get into full swing in the latter half of the 2020s. The United States has positioned the moon and Mars at the front line of its space development, and wants to shift projects that are closer to Earth to the private sector.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Several U.S. companies — including Axiom Space, Inc., which will launch a successor facility to the ISS — plan to develop operations that will provide a space hotel and facilities for private firms to conduct experiments.

China going it alone

China’s ongoing construction of its own space station is not something the United States can ignore. In 2021, China launched the core module for its Tiangong space station, and three astronauts are staying on the station, which reportedly could be completed as early as this year.

A Washington Post article published at the end of 2021 noted that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden supported the ISS extension at a time when China was “assembling its own space station.”

Russia is another central player in the ISS. However, it remains unclear whether Russia will readily agree to extend the life of the station at a time when ties between Moscow and Washington are increasingly strained over the situation in Ukraine. In 2021, Russia temporarily hinted it might pull out of the ISS due to its age, and build its own space station.

Japan also is coming under pressure to make a decision on the future of the ISS. The government plans to make a final decision by around summer, after carefully analyzing the cost-effectiveness of continuing to use the station.

Clock ticking for Japan

In 2009, Japan constructed the Kibo laboratory module that is now part of the ISS.

Also, Japan’s unmanned cargo transfer spacecraft have delivered supplies to the station.

The government spends ¥20 billion to ¥30 billion annually on ISS-related costs, so any extension of the station’s life will require additional spending. Japan also is participating in the Artemis program, so there is little spare money in the budget for further ISS expenses.

Even so, when all is said and done, the government actually wants to use the ISS for a long time, as many Japanese have been involved in the station, including those who have made significant accomplishments while aboard. Doing so also would help Japan maintain its presence in this field. The Kibo module contributes to international cooperation, such as by deploying small satellites made by developing nations.

“The government shouldn’t simply follow the lead of the United States,” said Hirotaka Watanabe, a specially appointed professor at Osaka University and an expert on space policy. “Instead, it should make a decision on the ISS extension after holding talks with the U.S. government about the benefits Japan could gain, such as obtaining a promise that the Artemis program will prioritize getting a Japanese astronaut to the lunar surface.”