Some weird news came out of Russia this weekend: The head of the Russian space program said that NASA and Roscosmos had agreed to build a new space station after the International Space Station expires in 2024. Don't believe it, not yet.
The current political climate makes it hard to know what's going to happen with the Russian-American space partnership later this week, let alone a decade from now. One thing NASA did confirm is that Russia is now apparently willing to continue using the ISS until 2024 (SpaceX and Boeing will take over ferrying astronauts to and from the station in 2017).
That's good news, because the American portion of the ISS can't function without Russia, and Russia has been threatened to pull out of the station in 2020. But beyond that, NASA won't say that it's agreed to build a new space station with Russia and it hasn't even confirmed that talks are happening.
That's for good reason: Agreeing to build a successor to the ISS probably isn't an announcement that's going to come out of the blue. The ISS is believed to be the most expensive thing humans have ever built, anywhere. Anything that comes after it is going to be extremely, too. NASA's annual budget is usually in the neighborhood of $18 billion; it's spending $4 billion on ISS operations every year.
NASA's Office of Inspector General estimated in September that the ISS cost the United States $75 billion between 1994 and 2013, which doesn't include the $11.2 billion the agency spent on Freedom, a planned predecessor to the ISS that was never launched but was instead revamped and rolled into the ISS plan.
Projects like these are pitched to the American people in presidential speeches, go through the ringer in Congress, and otherwise have massive PR campaigns behind them; they aren't something that's announced at a Russian press conference on a weekend. It's worth noting that many Russian reports about the future of NASA have been inaccurate and, in many cases, seem like little more than political posturing.
NASA, for its part, hasn't even made clear that it wants a new space station. The agency has repeatedly said it wants to get out of low-Earth orbit altogether. That means first allowing companies such as SpaceX and Boeing to fly astronauts to the ISS, and, in the longer term, relying on companies to build space stations that it can conduct experiments on. NASA would, presumably, rent out space on a commercial space station, rather than build a new one.
"We, the government, want another viable space station before this one ends," Sam Scimemi, ISS director at NASA Headquarters, said earlier this year. "If the space station ends in the 2020s and there's nothing to follow it, we will have lost all of this effort in research and benefits to humanity."
Scimemi and William Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration, however, didn't say explicitly that the government plans on building it, merely that it plans on using someone's space station.
"At some point this space station will wear out and there needs to be a follow-on space station," Gerstenmaier said. "What we're hoping for is that the private sector picks that up."
A company called Bigelow Aerospace plans to test inflatable space habitats later this year, and could ultimately end up launching a few into space to serve as laboratories and hotels; the future may be multiple small space stations, rather than one big one.
But there's lots of uncertainty surrounding the commercial viability of Bigelow's habitats and no other companies seem ready or able to start stitching together anything on the scale of the ISS. Not having anything ready to replace the ISS after it goes out of commission would be far from ideal and would result in a gap that NASA has been keen to avoid (NASA did not immediately respond to a Motherboard request for comment).
A seeming end to that uncertainty is why many rejoiced when the Roscosmos report, about a new, government-funded space station came out. But it's not that easy.
NASA has denied that it's got an agreement with the Russians for a new space station. But even if it does have a nonpublic agreement with Russia, it's also going to need support from Congress and from whoever replaces President Obama. That means lots of behind-the-scenes negotiations as well as public hearings and grandstanding.
I also wouldn't expect a Congress that was just furious about NASA's continued reliance and partnership with Russia to sign on to keeping close ties with the country for several more decades, at least.
The Roscosmos report is the first NASA has been publicly tied to any new space station. Before it convinces Congress it needs a new space station, it's probably going to have to convince itself it needs one, too.