For the last 20 years or so the US has been burdened with the monster albatross called the international space station.

Conceived as a way to keep the Russians engaged and to encourage peace this goal has hardly worked. As a science platform it has done things that have barely moved the bar on anything. I can’t think of anything significant it has accomplished.

The space station has cost the US around $160 billion ($100 billion from the US) and continues to eat up $5-10 billion in costs with no end in sight.

NASA has said it now wants to sell the ISS. Who would buy a monstrosity that costs billions and billions a year to maintain and that has no value?

This question has seemed very pregnant. I can’t think of anyone that would find it worth 2 cents. I’m quite sure when NASA says “sell” the space station what they mean is something they would unload on someone by paying them to take it over.

What company or person would consider taking this massive burden on? For what purpose?

My girlfriend yesterday suggested an idea that somehow never occurred to me.  Have Elon buy it!

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars.  At first he simply wanted to spend money to encourage America to be interested in space exploration again.  He figured $75 million would do it.  In the end he realized he needed to demonstrate and he ended up building SpaceX.

Elon has gotten about $3 billion in contracts to supply the space station. From what I can see roughly 1/2 of SpaceX funding is from NASA.  Starting this year ( maybe next ) Elon’s dragon capsule will be used to transport humans to the space station instead of Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

SpaceX has a contract with NASA to do about 10 manned missions to the space station. These might be in jeapordy if NASA sells it or not but SpaceX has 30-50% of its backlog tied up in future ISS space station supply and missions.  If the space station dries up a lot of his funding dries up.  Presumably other things would take the place but if SpaceX ran the station missions would continue.

The more important question is how would Elon run the space station? For what purpose? How would he buy it and how would this work?

The price

NASA will have to pay Elon to take it over. The value of the space station in terms of how much we paid for it is irrelevant. It’s sunk cost that is essentially 0.

Elon could operate the space station at a fraction of NASA’s costs but NASA doesn’t have many alternatives. Other bidders would not have the advantages of a reusable space fleet. Maybe Jeff Bexos would consider an offer but his blue horizon craft cannot make it to the space station yet. He would have to employ Musk until he could get Blue Horizon going.

If we assume a low ball cost of $4 billion / year to fund it NASA would be getting a deal and cut it’s ISS expense in half.

SpaceX should negotiate a contract to take over the space station, operate it doing current activities and supply missions as well as expanding the space station and its function, upgrade it.  I believe a fair price for NASA would be $4Billion / year.  This is the equivalent of 2 Space Shuttle flights a year for NASA.  It would be a great deal because they have no other cheaper way to operate and fund the program.

My guess is that Elon could make the space station into a significant value and provide new purpose, add modules and still keep his costs well under $2 billion.

NASA should commit to a 20 year time frame for the space station but possibly have an opt out after 10 years.

If NASA doesn’t think Elon is operating the station to the benefit of whatever criteria it sets maybe they can get out early.

This means Elon will double his revenue from NASA from the approx 2 billion a year and expand the operations and purpose of the space station.

NASA’s core operations budget for the ISS is 1.1 billion and its direct budget is $3.3 billion.  A substantial amount of this money goes to SpaceX and Russian launch companies.  NASA’s overall budget is $20 billion / year but a huge fraction of that goes for maintaining the ISS, for more than the 3.3 billion.  Half of NASA’s budget goes to other space missions, research and earth science.  If NASA sends $4Billion to SpaceX and spends $6 billion on the mission to Mars, the other $10 billion on other missions and other priorities I think this is a good way to move the US forward.

SpaceX will operate the space station at a much lower cost.  The resulting savings can translate into upgrades and improvements in the space station capability needed as a hub to Mars in the future.  The dream of the space station and a useful real function for the monstrosity can be found.

Should the US agree to such a deal?

In my opinion I don’t know how the US could do better other than simply letting the station fall from space. Another idea is to push the station into a much higher orbit so it won’t decay soon and then decommissioned it. This would have the benefit of massively reducing the US space budget and saving all that money but it would entail:

1. Accepting the embarrassment of admitting the space station was a waste.

2. Setting back the US space program and the people who maintain our program today.

NASA could refocus on other activities but frankly the failure of the space station points out a serious flaw with NASA. It is rudderless and has no purpose. It is undecided if it should go to the moon again or mars or what it is doing?

NASA has no goals and is too expensive

NASA is about 10 times more expensive than SpaceX at doing anything. Even worse they have no idea why they are doing anything which makes anything they do very expensive.

NASA never saw building reusable craft something to strive for. NASA is an entertainment company. They essentially do big projects at enormous cost to wow the American people and the world.

NASA doesn’t care how much these wows cost and has never been picky about reducing the cost of spaceflight. They are currently building a massive behemoth rocket that will cost 10 times the cost of SpaceX rockets. They don’t care because to them, like most government programs, money is a thing that is manufactured in huge gobs by the American government.

NASA should keep doing science and research.  They should stop building rockets and infrastructure.

If you cared at all for space travel then you would seek to reduce the cost to lift mass to space as your first priority. The reason is that everything you do in space has this incredible multiplier that is this lift cost.  NASA tried to build a reusable craft called the Shuttle.  It ended up costing $2 billion / mission.  A falcon 9 from SpaceX has far less functionality but it costs $50 million or less for SpaceX, possible a lot less.  That’s 40 SpaceX flights for every shuttle flight.  SpaceX is already 10x cheaper than the shuttle.  NASA’s failure they seem to have given up on reducing cost to space.

NASA’s plan is stupid and rudderless

NASA has plans to go to Mars like it went to the moon. Send some really expensive rockets with everything you need on board. Visit the planet for a short time pick up some rocks and come back.

In the movie “Martian” that depicted the closest thing to NASA’s plans yet described an astronaut finally gets a chance to pick some rocks and says he finally feels like an astronaut. This is the exact opposite of what is true. Everything he was doing not collecting rocks trying to survive and learning how to grow food and get around was what astronauts should be doing. Rock collecting is NOT what astronauts should do.

We don’t need Mars rocks or any other rocks. If that is NASA’s goal forget going to Mars. It’s pointless. To spend $200 billion or whatever to get Mars rocks is an incredible waste of time and money. Please stop it.

Mars is the goal

The goal Elon has stated is a goal many space enthusiasts like myself and in my opinion any real space enthusiast would embrace. Our goal is the bootstrapping of man on a second planet.

I have outlined a realistic plan to do this. Part of this plan involves a waypoint to prepare for the missions to mars. It could be the space station or another device. Maybe the moon and a moonbase.

Elon could turn the ISS into a manufacturing and staging area for flights to Mars.

With $40 billion and a space station Elon could complete his vision and we could be down this path.

The Plan

I have outlined the plan in other blogs. This plan entails missions starting in 2025 to mars which are robotic.  The time till 2025 is spent building the technology we would deploy.  We don’t have this technology today.  It includes things like power systems, robotic systems of various types to explore and GPS satellites for the red planet.

For the first 10 years of launches nothing but robots go to mars. The first manned mission would be in 2035 when we have built the infrastructure and supplied the surface with plentiful resources to support the first colonists.

Let me say this is ambitious plan as it is. Elon has suggested 2022 or earlier for a manned mission. I think that’s crazy.  A lot of prep work is needed to stage before humans should ever be sent to Mars.

Each unmanned mission to Mars would need to carry hundreds of thousands of pounds of materials to Mars. We need someplace in orbit to stage all this before we go to mars.

The space station is definitely not up to the task. It has one very weak robotic arm. It would need to support more people and more arms and would need more electricity supply and storage for resources. I would guess the space station needs to be doubled in size.

I anticipate that 3 BFR rockets would be needed to supply one mission to Mars. Note this is different than Elon and NASA’s plans. They expect to use a SpaceX BFR or NASA equivalent craft to get to Mars with a much smaller payload.

I believe staging a much larger payload is critical and that there is a need for an entirely new ship that would be a shuttle between Mars and Earth orbit. The reason for this is that the cost of transporting things to Mars from Earth orbit can be done vastly less expensively with a specialized shuttle. I suggest using an ion powered engine craft for the interplanetary journey. A much higher thrust ion engine has been demonstrated by NASA recently. It would be scaled up in my plan to produce much more thrust. The purpose of this craft is to continuously go back and forth between Mars and Earth.

The payloads to Mars would be 3-5 times what Elon’s or NASA plans and 20-50 of these missions would be needed before the first manned flight to Mars and another 50 at least after. Since these shuttles would be used so much it makes sense to spend considerable amount to make this part of the journey more efficient just as SpaceX has done for Earth to orbit reusability.

The Space Station could be a staging location. The missions would be assembled and a special self-powered Dragon capsule which would hold the contents would be loaded up at the space station. It would then accelerate to catch the shuttle which would deliver it to Mars and pick up the previous missions empty container ship and come back to Earth.

Upgrades to the Space Station Needed

  1. Power increase by a factor of 4
  2. Square foot of livable space increase by a factor of 3
  3. Additional Robotic arms and other space manufacturing capabilities such as welding joints using SpaceX/Tesla strong welding technology.
  4. Warehousing capability for both perishable and sensitive supplies.

SpaceX can do things like this.  NASA should focus on real science and let SpaceX handle the scale out of the station.  NASA is not good at cost control.

Selling the space station may be the impetus to this Mars plan

It never occurred to me that NASA would sell the station to Musk and SpaceX but this seems like the most logical solution. The US government wants to get rid of this albatross and its lack of direction makes the station useless and a huge waste. Elon could use it and still do the science missions NASA may want. NASA could release more of its budget which should be used in my opinion for planning and building the missions to Mars leaving the infrastructure parts to Elon.

Elon isn’t good at doing general science. He has a goal. Build a cost effective way to get to Mars. This allows NASA to build the robotics and things we need to build the colony on Mars and plan the colonization. Believe me this is easily another $10 billion a year. NASA can do what it is good at, building science and Elon could build transportation efficiently.

This plan of selling the station to Elon (or more accurately paying Elon to take it over) is the most elegant cost effective solution to getting the colony on Mars and for NASA and US space policy.