U.S. Sen. John Cornyn plans to file measure extending U.S. operations of the space station to 2030

February 25, 2019

With NASA’s funding at the mercy of the annual Congressional budgetary process, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn said he wants to provide predictability in at least one area of the country’s space program: the International Space Station.

“As we’ve seen, some of [NASA’s] stream of funding has been uncertain and interrupted by things like sequestration and shutdowns,” Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, told the Houston Chronicle Friday. “Before we can attract private capital, they are going to need some greater certainty.”

The Texas Congressman plans to file a measure in the coming weeks to extend the country’s operation of the space station to 2030. It currently is scheduled to end by the end of 2024, but Congress can extend it.

Cornyn on Friday toured Space Center Houston, the museum side of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and participated in a round-table discussion with local technology and space companies.

Representatives from those companies support Cornyn’s proposal.

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Mark Mulqueen, Boeing’s space station program manager, said that he is in favor of increased life of the orbiting laboratory because Boeing and SpaceX are on the cusp of having commercial spacecrafts ready to fly.

In 2014, the two companies were tapped to build commercial vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to and from the space station as a means to alleviate the country’s reliance on Russian. The Russians have been transporting American astronauts since 2011, when the Space Shuttle program shuttered.

“Right now, the only market for the commercial crew is ISS so longevity to 2030 is so important for them,” Mulqueen said. Both companies are tentatively scheduled to fly crewed test flights for their spacecrafts by the end of this year.

But the continuation of the space station also impacts people who live in the community, said Robbie McAfoos, president of Houston-based Barrios Technology.

“Thousands of people here ... choose to work at the space agency,” McAfoos said. “They do this for their personal well being and for the well being of the country and the uncertainty of what will happen to the space station is hard on them.”

Last year, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, filed a similar measure in Congress, a response to President Donald Trump’s proposal to end federal funding for the space station in 2024, allowing commercial entities to take over its operation by 2025.

Cruz, a Republican from Texas, and many other congressional leaders were against Trump’s plan, questioning whether commercial companies could step up to fill the government’s funding role. Just in fiscal year 2017, NASA spent $1.45 billion on the space station — and that doesn’t count costs to transport astronauts and supplies there.

Cruz’s bill also would have extended U.S. operation of the space station to 2030. The measure was approved unanimously by the Senate in December, but failed to pass in the House.

This fact doesn’t deter Cornyn, however.

“It takes perseverance,” he said. “In Congress, sometimes it takes years to get things done.”

Experts have said the station can be safely operated until at least 2030.

Cornyn’s measure also would require NASA to create a strategy to retire the space station “to ensure that there is a smooth transition to an eventual successor platform,” according to a one-page summary of the measure, and would direct the agency to create next generation spacesuits for future exploration endeavors.

Additionally, it would make human settlements in space a national goal.

Alex Stuckey writes about NASA and the environment for the Houston Chronicle. You can reach her alex.stuckey@chron.com or Twitter.com/alexdstuckey