“Another issue is how to foster this LEO [low-Earth orbit] economy, supporting NASA research, technology, and development, and this economic activity at the same time. Figuring out how to do that is a big deal. How do we transition what we’re doing so there is something that follows on after us with this transition?”
Echoing the sentiments of his predecessors, Shireman has doubts about the 2024 target date to transfer the station to commercial operators when U.S. government funding is scheduled to end.
“I don’t believe ISS can be handed over to a commercial entity with zero government funding and be a viable enterprise; there’s not enough income to support the costs. If it is not viable, we will de-orbit it. I think there will be a debate between Congress and the administration on how to transition, how to work with industry so there is a viable alternative to flying to ISS,” he added.
“Another issue is how to foster this LEO [low-Earth orbit] economy, supporting NASA research, technology, and development, and this economic activity at the same time. Figuring out how to do that is a big deal.”
“The challenge is what is intended by the administration and how do we make that transition. The desired end state is still in flux. And some are things not in the normal repertoire of NASA nor the government as a whole – helping create a market without dominating or dictating it. How do we grow it from being subsidized today to no subsidization – and do that without killing it?”
It is not just a NASA problem, but one affecting all of the nations involved in the ISS for the past two decades, as well as those interested in using its orbital laboratory facilities.
“We’re working daily with the international partners about integrating these new commercial crew vehicles into their program plans because their astronauts will be flying on them, as well. In terms of transitioning the ISS, every partner is aware of the transition report NASA submitted to Congress and how we are proceeding,” Shireman said.
“We have created a working group with representatives from NASA and all the international partners to work on what we as a partnership think the transition plan should be and stay consistent with the U.S. plan. We formed that in the past month and are working very well together to come to some agreement in the end, even if we don’t all agree on everything at the moment.”
While he likely still has years to go as ISS PM, Shireman already has some achievements he can list.
“I’m most proud of the mentality of our organization today, its focus on customer service and making their work as easy as possible for them, where in years past it was necessary to work to make NASA’s job easier, which sometimes made it harder for our customers. That means making their interface with us easier and working much faster to get their experiments onboard the ISS. It used to take two or three years to get something on orbit, but now it is possible to do that as quickly as six months.
“Second, probably more subtle, is I was heavily involved in the deal to obtain Soyuz seats for us in calendar year 2019. It was unusual because we didn’t actually buy them from Roscosmos, but from Boeing – and, in the end, at a significant discount to earlier prices – when we really needed them. NASA has a relationship with Roscosmos, which has a principal contract with Energia, which manufactures Soyuz spacecraft. Each party was able to meet the needs of one or more of the other parties and all were happy in the end. It was a win-win-win result by including two more parties than just NASA and Roscosmos, where a simple head-to-head deal was not possible.”
Even with the need for a “creative” deal on Soyuz seats, he joined the other American PMs in praising the efforts and support of the Russian space team throughout the ISS’ first two decades of operation.
“Our relationship with the Russians today is as good as it’s ever been. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the Russians – and they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us. That doesn’t mean we haven’t had our issues in the past, but we knew we could work through them and, when the chips were down, we both would drop everything and come to our partner’s aid. They came to our aid after the Columbia disaster and are still doing it. And when they’ve had issues along the way, we stepped up and helped them out,” he said.
“The fact we’ve worked together for so long – as individuals – I don’t expect the relationship to deteriorate despite any political environment, nor the changes that are coming. As we do more commercial activities, so are the Russians, as are our international partners. So I have no doubt it will be a strong partnership in the future, including future activities. I think we have forged a path for space activities in the future that goes on not for decades, but for lifetimes.”
“Our relationship with the Russians today is as good as it’s ever been. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the Russians – and they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for us.”
Shireman credited his predecessors with making the ISS the success it has been, despite serious problems ranging from loss of the Space Shuttle to waning political support:
“The reason we are successful today is because all my predecessors were able to be adaptable. When things weren’t working, we adapted and tried something different. You can always find things you could have done different, but the fact my predecessors were able to adapt and succeed, no matter what, brought us to where we are today. They did a phenomenal job and we wouldn’t be here today without them.”
Each of NASA’s ISS program managers faced his own problems with keeping the space station on track, functioning and maintaining an unprecedented 100 percent safety record. Each also had his own goals, personal and for the station, but Shireman essentially summed them up succinctly:
“What do I think the ISS means to the country, maybe to the planet? The wonderful thing about the ISS, not just while I’ve been PM but since its beginning, is it’s not about any one person or program manager, but about what we’re doing, leaving a mark for humanity, advancing not only the U.S. but the species. It’s a great thing to be part of that and I’m truly blessed to have been part of it since 1994. I really believe that isn’t just me but what anybody in the program would tell you. In 10 years, I hope nobody remembers me but everybody remembers the ISS.”