Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas has weighed in on the Trump proposal to end NASA participation in the international space station. His reaction is far more nuanced than that of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida. However, Culberson’s opinion on the ISS matter carries a lot of weight. He chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and would, therefore, have to approve of any plan to transition from the ISS to a commercial low Earth orbit infrastructure that may or may not include the current space station under private management.

What Culberson wrote

In a letter to the Houston Chronicle, Culberson wrote, “I want to reassure the scientists, engineers and astronauts at NASA that I will fully fund the International Space Station, and I will do everything in my power to keep the International Space Station flying as long as the safety engineers tell us it is feasible to do so.” The congressman goes on to praise NASA and to note that while President Trump can make recommendations, Congress (which is to say Culberson) will have the final say in the matter. He assures one and all that he will maintain America’s leadership in space exploration paramount.

What the congressman means

While Nelson was somewhat plain and combative (“they’ll have a fight on their hands”), Culberson’s statement leaves a lot of wiggle room that would be the basis of negotiations between himself and the administration.

Trump could work out a deal that would satisfy Culberson’s concerns and still free money from the ISS to get the return to the moon program rolling in high gear.

Suppose, for example, the safety engineers conclude that the ISS cannot be flown in safety past 2025? Then Culberson would be agreeable to the Trump proposal to shift to a Commercial Space Station, one built by Bigelow or Axiom.

On the other hand, what would happen if the administration developed a plan to replace NASA with a commercial firm on the ISS, perhaps as a transition to an industrial space infrastructure in low Earth orbit? This approach would also seem to satisfy the congressman’s concerns.

A shift immediately from the ISS to a commercial space station would be a bit dicier.

Presumably, the new space station would have to be in place before NASA withdrew from the ISS to satisfy Culberson. No one wants a repeat of the situation that exists now with the space shuttle having been retired in 2011 and its commercial replacements delayed so that America has been dependent on the Russians to access the ISS for years.

If the Trump administration wants to shift from the ISS to a commercial infrastructure, it had better have a concrete and sustainable plan to do so. People like Nelson will always howl in opposition. Culberson is more friendly to the White House and is enthusiastic about deep space exploration, especially exploring the outer planets and a return to the moon. But he also has to be satisfied that another space gap does not develop as a result.