Save Freedom: We must stop the destruction of the International Space Station

by blissketoacv

Last week was incredibly depressing. For anyone paying attention, it finally became apparent that, unless a dramatic change occurs after decades of service, coming events may well push an American icon into the trash heap of history.

I am, of course, speaking of NASA’s decision to hire SpaceX to dump the International Space Station on the Earth. Truth be told, this decision has put me in a quandary. The greatest exploration entity in history is hiring the best space company in history to do the stupidest thing in its history.

As one of the few people on the planet with some small standing in the discussion, I’ve been against the idea of destroying the ISS since it was first announced. First, as one of the leaders of the Space Frontier Foundation, I helped lead an almost successful campaign in Congress to have it canceled in the early 1990s. Why? Because we believed the government shouldn’t build buildings and drive trucks (like the space shuttle). Also, by then, it was clear that President Reagan’s announced vision of the station as a spaceport to the Solar System, to be completed in the mid-90s for under $10 billion, was not going to happen. Judged by the expectations set by the President, the ISS was never finished, as construction on it stopped somewhere around the year 2010 after $100 billion had been spent by the U.S. and its partners. We lost the fight by one vote. Or, as my NASA friends say, they saved it by one vote. 

Next, in 1995, having accepted this loss, and as part of an effort to leverage the taxpayer’s investment in the station, I called in my Alpha Town testimony in front of Congress for all transportation to and from the station to be commercially provided. NASA’s ISS supply and crew needs could be leveraged to help spur a competitive commercial space travel industry. At the same hearing, I called for private firms to build and operate all expansions and further facilities.

Finally, staying true to the Frontier Philosophy of not throwing anything away in space, the Foundation began a quest to save the Russian Mir space station. Eventually, I led a team to Moscow, underwritten by the visionary Walt Anderson, which resulted in the founding of MirCorp and leasing Mir as the world’s first commercial space station. After flying our first crew to survey the facility, and under extreme pressure from NASA and the U.S. government, Russian President Putin ordered it be de-orbited and dumped into the Pacific. It was a crushing blow, although the project led to the signing of Dennis Tito as the first Private Astronaut, whom we later transferred to fly on the ISS. I was in tears when it happened. A sad sign that there would be much more work needed to transform the psychology of space leaders from the existing use-it-and-throw-it-away mentality that has been the hallmark of recent human industrial society.

Since then, like most of us who follow such things, I have been impressed by the incredible work the agency and its partners have done aboard the orbiting lab. Amazing breakthroughs have flowed nonstop from the work of the astronaut and cosmonaut crews who have flown aboard her. And so has inspiration for millions of school children listening to thousands of lessons from space, lighting young imaginations around the world. The orbiting lab has become a beacon and evening star for the power of science. And yes, even as the world below has churned and boiled at the instigation of politicians, the spirit of the international “Right Stuff” has kept the candle of hope alive that humanity can work together to open the frontier of space to all. 

So, in an amazing, almost ironic twist of fate, a few years ago, I found myself taking the stand that the U.S. government cannot, must not, and, if I can do anything about it, shall not dump one of the most important buildings in human history on the planet that is home to those who built it. 

The International Space Station must be preserved for future generations. It is without doubt nor question one of humanity’s greatest achievements, on par with and in many ways exceeding the value to our global society of the Pyramids, the Parthenon, Angor Wat, or any other World Heritage sites. Like them, it must be saved from the short-sighted silliness of bureaucratic bullies and their version of a space bulldozer.

Some will ask: Why is this so important? We need to get on with the tasks of constructing the new space stations on the orbital street, returning to the Moon, and even planning missions to Mars. Who cares about an old and useless building whose time has come and gone? The future calls!”

Yes, it does. And how we treat the heritage we create along the way to that future will, in many ways, help determine if that future is an extension of how we have treated the world from which we come — or if we have learned anything and aspire to do better.

If NASA dumps ISS on the Earth, it will be the worst public relations disaster in its history. At the very moment, new generations of eco-conscious young people are taking the reins of control, as the agency that has stood for a hopeful vision of the future will be trashing the planet. Ridiculous. Worse, one of the world’s most exciting companies will be spattered by the debris along the way. It is an awful decision, a terrible plan and a signal that America isn’t serious about staying in space. For if it were, it would protect such a treasured symbol of what went into making it happen.

Before I offer solutions (and there are many), let’s be clear about how we got here. Given that old-school industrial mindset I mentioned earlier, as ordered by Congress and the White House, NASA has done no serious work on how to save the facility. Their bosses in Washington began with and have stayed true to their primitive mindset. The groupthink at work here has been reinforced by artificially imposed budget constraints, created by bad decisions by Congress in other parts of the program, that are eating American’s tax dollars at an alarming rate. When asked, agency officials chum the waters with red herrings: the difficulties of maneuvering such a large facility upwards into a storage orbit, maintenance costs, even the altitude of such an orbit, using numbers based on higher-than-needed locations, and more.

In no particular order, here are the basics of my proposal:

1. The ISS be stripped of whatever of the billions of dollars of still-useful hardware and tech it has aboard. This can be auctioned to one of the several new commercial space station facilities, or even, if appropriate, transferred to NASA’s planned lunar orbiting “Gateway” facility. The U.S. government might even choose to use parts of this exercise as a way to put in place and create precedents for much-needed salvage laws that can then be applied to helping clean up low Earth orbit by creating paths that currently do not exist for space operators to transfer ownership of in-space assets to others.

2. The “tug” SpaceX is being contracted to build and operate be designed as an orbital tug rather than a single-use system. Such an important tool will prove to be invaluable over time, moving large payloads around in orbit once they are delivered by large space trucks like StarShip and Blue Origin’s New Glenn. Further, given plans to build massive orbital tanker farms and the sure-to-be growing number of private space stations now on the drawing boards, such an orbital tug will be an important safeguard when they face failures of their onboard systems. 

3. Russia be provided the option to provide support to this effort, offering a chance for well-needed cooperation between our nations. If they choose to decouple their part of the station, what they do with it will be their decision. This will leave the original U.S. modules, once known as “Freedom,” for us to manage.

4. The facility be fitted with a basic kit of onboard thrusters, or its existing thruster system will be adapted to provide minimum control authority. This will prove to be a useful exercise for all involved, providing lessons useful for future large structures while drawing from existing knowledge developed by operators of large communication satellites. 

5. The station be moved to a medium-high orbit, sealed, and declared a Universal Heritage Site. This new designation can also be applied to the Apollo, Russian Lunokhod, Chinese Chang’e and Indian Moon landing sites, as well as significant historical sites on Mars. If the world fails to do so, or if such a designation takes too long to implement, the U.S. can designate “Freedom” as a Federal National Heritage site.

There are many, many people in our space community who are much smarter than me who can solve these challenges. They have not been asked to do so.

Among such smart people are those building the new Commercial Leo Destinations (CLDs) or private space facilities. To date, they have been singing the NASA song that the ISS must die. This is for two prime reasons: a fear that anything looking like an extension of the facility’s life means it stays as a competitor to their plans; and the fact that they are caught in the NASA sphere of influence and that no one speaks against The Plan.

I get it. I believe this effort benefits all involved. Like any venerable historical building in any community anywhere, something deeply saddening will occur when the creator of their legacy is destroyed. ISS pioneered everything they are trying to do. Supporting this effort will cost them nothing, and it will say to a new generation that what they are building is part of something long-term and permanent. 

This truth goes especially for NASA. If we are indeed and at last opening the Frontier to Americans and humanity, are we not doing so permanently? Do we not intend that the decades of our investments in space will result in expanding human communities beyond the Earth? Do we not then owe these future pioneers and citizens of the solar system the right to their legacy? 

I can imagine a time in a hundred years when the children and grandchildren of today’s space heroes are living and working in an expanding bubble of life growing outward from the Motherworld of Earth. I can see a time when the citizens of the future decide that the venerable old station that gave them their first real foothold will be re-awakened. I see the moment, probably covered not just globally, but on media stretching from Earth to the moon, Mars, and the Free Space between, when the lights are turned back on and Freedom once again shines.

It is time for those of today who believe that what we are doing in space is not just a short-term set of camping trips and expeditions but a harbinger of the next phase of humanity’s existence to start acting like it.

Friends of Freedom, from her astronauts, to those who built and kept her flying, were inspired by the work done aboard her, or simply folks who believe in the importance of preserving historical monuments, and those who do not believe we should trash the Earth from space, need to organize and educate Congress and the White House as to why the current plan is bad, what the alternatives might be and how important this cherished piece of our history is and will be.

Rick Tumlinson Founded the EarthLight Foundation and SpaceFund, a venture capital firm. He Co-Founded The Space Frontier Foundation, was a founding board member of the XPrize, and hosts “The Space Revolution” on iRoc Space Radio, part of the iHeart Radio Network.

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