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Costly Rocket Disaster Raises Questions About Future Of The Space Station

The recent SpaceX launch explosion cost NASA $110 million, the agency said on Friday, with only some money recouped from the private space firm. The mishap is raising questions about the future of the $3-billion-a-year International Space Station.

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NASA lost $110 million in last month's SpaceX rocket explosion, along with docking equipment, a space suit, and other space station supplies, an agency official said on Friday.

At a Congressional hearing on the future of the International Space Station in light of three cargo launch mishaps in the last year, space subcommittee representatives asked the space agency what comes next for the football-field-sized lab orbiting some 250 miles overhead.

A Russian Progress mission delivered cargo to the space station this week, a welcome success after months of failures.

Accident reports are still due for the June disintegration of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, which lost 4,000 pounds of space station cargo, and for the October explosion of an Antares rocket, which destroyed nearly 5,000 pounds of experiments. NASA's Inspector General pegged the loss of science experiments at $675,000.

"The real tragedy would be if we don't learn from these events," NASA's William Gerstenmaier said at the hearing, adding that rocket flight is inherently risky. Under questioning from Space Committee Chairman Brian Babin of Texas, he said that the loss of the equipment was a setback but not insurmountable for the space station, which costs NASA about $3 billion a year.

Despite the launch disasters, Gerstenmaier said the space station is still doing good work. He pointed to a NASA report released this week describing research on reversing bone loss and other accelerated aging effects of spaceflight, saying the work was contributing to NASA's efforts to someday send people safely to Mars. Astronaut Scott Kelly is now staying aboard the space station for a year in a bid to compare his health with his grounded twin brother, Mark Kelly, a former astronaut, as part of this goal.

Friday’s committee hearing raised perennial questions about research on the space station.

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin testified that even if NASA keeps the space station running through 2024, it won't meet all its research goals for determining the safety of long-duration spaceflight for astronauts. The loss of SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which is the only cargo vessel capable of returning experiments to Earth, also hurts space station research.

And the Government Accountability Office's Shelby Oakley said that with a six-person crew, only 12% of astronauts' time aboard the space station can be devoted to research.

Adding a seventh astronaut devoted to research would double the amount of research conducted there, but simple mathematics now prevents that: Russia's Soyuz crew capsule can only carry three people and just two escape capsules are parked at the station. Private U.S. crew rockets are planned to replace the Russian ones in 2018.

Both Martin and Oakley added that space station costs are likely to increase, from $3 billion a year in 2015 to $4 billion a year by 2020.

That puts a lot of pressure on research aboard the space station, said Penn State's James Pawelczyk, who is on the National Research Council panel that advises NASA on biological research.

That's because only 8% of the station's budget, about $225 million, is devoted to research, and that portion has a lower priority than keeping the crew alive and the orbital lab functioning. A precipitous drop in space station research funding after 2001 wiped out 80% of research at the orbital lab by 2010, he noted, and the coming crunch may repeat that history.

The successful arrival of a Russian Progress cargo mission to the space station only underlined dismay expressed by lawmakers, such as Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, over NASA's continued reliance on Soyuz rockets to deliver crew there, at $65 million a seat.

Despite friction with Russia over its annexation of Crimea and undeclared warfare with Ukraine, relations between the two space powers in orbit "are strong," Gerstenmaier added.

"The challenge of human spaceflight transcends the toughness of the outside world," Gerstenmaier said. Despite threats of pulling out of the space station earlier this year, he predicted that Russia would announce plans to stick with the orbiting lab through 2024 later this year.

But Gerstenmaier also said that NASA has backup plans if Russia pulls out from the space station. And he described long-terms plans to launch a new space station even further into space, near the moon.

"We're going to leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies," Gerstenmaier said. "The agency's role is to push further out into space, most likely into lunar orbit."

Dan Vergano is a science reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.

Contact Dan Vergano at dan.vergano@buzzfeed.com.

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