It’s not what it looks like – the cost of ISS per year

There is an oddity to the International Space Station, its name – a station. On Earth this would be fine, a station, as in stationary, not moving. In space though “station” is a bit of a misnomer for a facility going once around the Earth every 90 minutes and traveling 15,500 miles per hour. Pictures, even video as spacecraft come and go from the ISS, cannot do justice to its movement as it traces its orbital path. With that stationary bias, as if the ISS merely floats in space above us, it’s also lost that the space station has a front. The forward Unity, Kibo and Columbus modules take the micrometeoroid hits along the way. Everything facing forward gets the dings. Unfortunately, adding a figurehead or feature to the ISS to clearly show it is a ship traveling in the sea of space above Earth, and where the front is, would be out of the question. An ISS figurehead at the bow would block the front door, the mating adapter where spacecraft dock to deliver cargo and crew.

Seute_deern_figurehead at the bow of a sailing ship.
A bow with a figurehead.

Similarly little appreciated is how NASA once upon a time had a plan to complete the ISS and soon after ditch it in the ocean. The ISS would have been built over decades to be operated for only five years. In a world of NASA projects that last a career this qualifies as a blink of an eye. This massive and international project, the only reason to keep flying the Space Shuttle after the loss of Columbia, would be completed in 2010 and de-orbited in 2015. The flirtation with the idea of building the ISS and soon after destroying it was (fortunately) brief – a span of a few years, ending with acceptance of the absurdity of such a plan. I had the unique privilege in 2008 of briefing NASA leadership about the big picture, for exploration, the ISS and everything else in the NASA budget, and declaring this end-of-life plan for ISS ridiculous (only in more diplomatic terms, with pretty graphs, and many budget scenarios and lots of numbers). As evenly as I was told I presented, this was a time when pointing out this obvious defect in planning was still a formula for an unexpectedly heated immune response (and not being invited back). The plan is the plan we are told to plan to after all. Until it wasn’t.

The International Space Station / ISS in a wire diagram representation where red indicates more debris hits, more in the direction of motion.
Micrometeoroid Debris Shielding, Eric L. Christiansen, NASA Johnson Space Center

It’s now 2021 and the ISS is still going strong. Current ISS planning looks as far as 2028, officially anyway, but practically the ISS is part of NASA for the foreseeable future. In all this a common question comes up again and again – what is the cost of the ISS per year? In 2010 the slight nuance to this question from on high became what does it cost for NASA “to own a space station”, likely from a suspicion something was off about the simpler form of the question. The “owning” angle would turn out to be not a much better version of the question of the station’s yearly costs. There are many reasons most answers to the ISS yearly cost question are “not even wrong”. But a look at the books for the ISS shows this view can apply to the question itself. After enough years where I was fortunate to be involved in uncomfortable questions, it became clear – asking the right questions is much more important than answers to poor questions.

Wrong questions, good questions and a trip down a rabbit hole

What might motivate questions about ISS costs per year? A frequent if not as advertised reason is the belief the question leads to a number that is the same as the amount of NASA funding that would be freed up for other distinct projects should the ISS end. This is Deja-vu all over again, like the time over a decade ago when NASA planning called for building the ISS then not long after crashing it into the Pacific. Today, the part about de-orbiting so soon is gone, but the notion that a NASA lunar program receives the large amount of freed up ISS funds for wholly new projects remains. How much easier it would be to get those Moon plans to add up. Here again the dull notion raises its head – that ISS funds when ISS ends are funds freed up to be used as down payments for a lunar lander, an outpost, or a large rocket. And still, we have a question that is “not even wrong”.

There is a good reason to ask the question about the yearly cost of the ISS – a vision that one day soon NASA will buy time and space for its astronauts on private space stations. Even better, NASA will be one of many customers for power, air, food, water, ports and space on those private stations. NASA would not own the lab, or the Hampton, but it would rent the space and the room. This entirely different reason to understand the cost of the ISS per year is all about business cases that need to know where we are before we decide where we might go. NASA once ran with a business case for getting cargo to the ISS, the ride, not by using the entirely owned and operated Space Shuttle, but by hailing a cab. This became the US ISS Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program or “COTS”. The business case then began with measurable NASA’s needs, a certain tonnage to the ISS per year, preferably at a lower yearly budget than continuing to use the Space Shuttle and its logistics module. Similarly, asking about ISS costs sets the stage for the really good question. How might private space stations be had, where NASA rents rather than owns, for less yearly budget while growing capabilities as well?

Entertaining cost questions about a NASA project gives new meaning to “going down a rabbit hole”. What will not be found down that hole, in the ISS case, is an answer equal to funding one day freed up for just anywhere else. There are three legs to this stool, most of which by dollar amount do not have to do with operating the ISS. The first cost is basic “research” about humans in space, a body of knowledge unlikely to be declared complete anytime soon. This is what is done on the ISS, not the cost of running it. In the 2021 NASA budget this is about $350M a year. A second cost usually attributed to ISS is the cost of getting there. Somehow, asked about running a lab, the common answer likes to add in the cost of the flight, supplies and the rental car to get there. This is $1.7 billion a year in 2021. Third is the “ISS Systems Operations and Maintenance”, the actual cost to run the station, at about $1 billion a year. This is how anyone googling ends up with a reply to the “cost of ISS per year” of “$3 to $4 billion a year” (also here). This is the sum of these three parts and then some. It’s in diving into these three parts that it’s easy to realize the confusion afoot.

A google search of annual ISS costs with a universal symbol of "NO" (a circle and a single cross mark) imposed on it to indicate the usual answer is incorrect.
Nyet. Not quite the answer. Not even close.

Going further down the rabbit hole Alice?

Dissecting is a good word for looking deeper into ISS costs, as this will get messy. For the research dollars, NASA is unlikely to cease its R&D into humans in space. If NASA moved to a private station the thought might be this could be done for less, but just as well it might be even more by choice, NASA finally able to dedicate more resources to results and less to the means of getting these. Tossing these comparisons into spreadsheet territory would be distinguishing NASA astronauts from others (international partners), and then only doing research, not the effort to keep things safe and humming along. The private space station equivalent research is not seven astronauts. But is it two, five, or in between? In cost circles, when confronted by valid but competing reasons why a cost might go up or down, the safe bet is it is probably not going to change much at all.

Similarly, doing the research needs astronauts, and NASA currently manages getting its cargo and crew to the ISS commercially. A private station might do better if also tasked with the ride, now a shuttle bus to the hotel, but it could arguably be unlikely to do too much better given these services are already acquired by NASA in a very competitive field (Northrop Grumman and SpaceX with others to come). Current post-ISS thinking already recognizes this – the transport to the ISS being commercialized, transport to a private station would not be re-commercialized. Any changes here will the result of where costs are attributed for cargo and non-NASA crew – employees of the private station. As well, showing more morphing than transformation, transport of cargo and crew would remain funds for transport of cargo and crew, just to the Moon.

The bunny rabbit from the original series Star Trek episode "Shore Leave".
Have you seen a rather large white rabbit?

After the research and the transportation getting to a space station, the last element which seems to be the ISS yearly operational cost (that $1 billion a year) requires a secret decoder ring that comes from years of experience asking where the bodies are buried. Except that anyone who dared go down that rabbit hole will discover that even that question is not a good one. It’s really about how the bodies are buried, where and why. The number here gets clearer when realizing that NASA budgets for space exploration have always included Kennedy Space Centers expected and necessary ground and launch operations for when the day comes to prepare and launch deep space missions. Yet when looking at these same budgets for the also expected and necessary mission and flight operations at Johnson Space Center, the budget has been missing. This is part artifice and part policy. As long as NASA is in the crewed space exploration business many of these human spaceflight costs are attributed to whoever are the current customers – or now the remaining customer, like the ISS. A look at the NASA budget when the Space Shuttle ended shows this institutional effect clearly, the Space Flight Support budget shooting up, many people and organizations from Shuttle moved back there, but not freed up for new hardware. (The actual number here for a similar ISS effect especially affects the possible budget advantage should NASA move to a commercial station model.)

Are you confused yet? Searching for better questions.

If all this seems to say the operation of the ISS is nearly free to NASA, apart from actually using it to do research, and apart from getting there, it’s not. It does mean the commonly googled number of about $3 to $4 billion a year for ISS costs is misleading at best. This is especially so if thinking this ISS yearly dollar number equals other very distinct project possibilities should the ISS end.

Yet a bad question has its use – it can lead to better questions.

Rather than abandoning our rear on our way to deep space, the question is how to strengthen it so the deep space voyages are possible.

What might NASA do in a permanent place (or places) in LEO as an anchor tenant, renting a room or rooms, but not owning the hotel and lab or part of an international one? Aside from doing the numbers on a business case for NASA (and another one for the private partner finding non-NASA customers) might we see NASA do even more in orbit for the same yearly ISS funding? If doing more, what more? With byzantine accounting, the benefits we should focus on are too easily lost in the fray. Rather than abandoning our rear on our way to deep space, the question is how to strengthen it so the deep space voyages are possible. If we are to have orbitals one day, a long string of pearls from Earth to the sky above and beyond, these are the right questions.

Also see:

From the before times:

More recently:

“NASA, though, did reveal its projected demand for commercial space stations at the briefing. It estimates it will need two astronauts on orbit continuously, performing 200 investigations a year. That is significantly below the current use of the ISS, which has seven people on board.”

Notice the potential error here in this comparison, as not all astronauts on the ISS are NASA (the others being from Canada, Russia, Japan and Europe) and much of all the crew’s time is not available for investigations, being caught up in maintaining the ISS. For a private station, maintenance and operations should be the responsibility of the private station (other non-NASA crew).

Notice the error here again The International Space Station costs NASA about $4 billion a year to operate.” – even as NASA statements in the same piece, if pondered just a moment, say otherwise.

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