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NASA Plans ‘Grand Funeral’ For Space Station; Starts Backing Tech Firms To Develop Privately-Owned ‘Space Base’

The International Space Station (ISS) has been circling the Earth for more than two decades now, contributing to major scientific experiments that have laid the groundwork for deep space explorations.

ISS, which was launched in 2000 and has orbited 227 nautical miles above Earth, has hosted more than 200 astronauts from 19 different countries.

However, ISS is now nearing the end of its service life, with US space agency NASA announcing plans to crash it into the Pacific Ocean in 2031. The famed piece of space technology will be pushed out of orbit before plunging into the ocean. 

NASA revealed the detailed plan in a report submitted to Congress last week. It outlined a transition plan for the ISS, including the costs associated with the move and the future plans. 

Reasons Behind ISS Retirement 

In 1993, the United States and Russia had announced plans to build the ISS together, with Japanese, Canadian, and European space agencies joining later.

A Russian rocket carried the first section of the space station, a control module, into space in 1998. Two weeks later, a crew on the US space shuttle Endeavor joined the control module to another component, the Unity node. 

The space station was built over the next two years until it was prepared to bring a crew onboard. The first crew was dispatched on November 2, 2000. Since then, the space lab has housed more than 200 astronauts, establishing a permanent human presence in space.

Several historic firsts have been documented onboard the International Space Station over the past two decades. For example, in 2018, NASA’s Cold Atom Lab became the first facility in space to create the fifth state of matter, known as a Bose-Einstein condensate. 

The International Space Station above the Atlantic Ocean. (File Photo)

However, the ISS is becoming increasingly dilapidated as time passes. Duncan Steel, a space scientist at Xerra Earth Observation Institute in New Zealand, told ABC News, “It’s not just humans living on board. Bacteria, fungi, and other microbes survive and thrive there too.”

He added that there are bacteria colonies inside the space station that we don’t always see, but that could cause a slew of issues. When there’s a lot of recycled air, it can go into electronics and other things.

Moreover, the space station’s structure has been strained by the docking and undocking of vehicles shuttling supplies and people back and forth, and different cracks and leaks have been fixed over time. 

The cost of regular maintenance and upkeep is exorbitant; therefore eliminating the space station will save a significant amount of money.

File Image: NASA

How Will ISS Retire? 

According to NASA’s International Space Station Transition Report, the ISS was supposed to crash in the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area, also known as Point Nemo. The deorbit would occur in January 2031. 

Point Nemo has turned into a type of space graveyard, where defunct spacecraft are frequently laid to rest. The location is roughly around 2,700 km away from any land and is named after a figure in Jules Verne’s novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

The timeline for the ISS’s re-entry maneuvers, which “may start at different times depending on solar cycle activity and its effect on Earth’s atmosphere.” (NASA)

Operators on the ground will use thrusters to regulate the space station’s fall once it has been emptied and stripped of anything that needs to be retained, ultimately placing it on course for its eventual collapse. 

“ISS operators will perform the ISS re-entry burn, providing the final push to lower ISS as much as possible and ensure safe atmospheric entry,” the transition plan explains.

The ISS was originally scheduled to be active for 15 years, but NASA decided to extend its stay in orbit by another 10 years in 2014. NASA’s latest revelation means it will be around for nearly a decade longer than it was previously planned.

What’s Next?

The ISS will be replaced by “one or more commercially owned and operated space platforms,” according to NASA. “The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement.

NASA claims the switch to renting space on commercial platforms could save the space agency billions of dollars. The money saved will “be applied to Nasa’s deep space exploration initiatives, allowing the agency to explore deep space further and faster.” 

The ISS presently costs NASA roughly $3.1 billion per year, with more than $1.3 billion going to station operations and research, and about $1.8 billion going to personnel and cargo transportation. According to a graph contained in the transition report, spending will remain flat until the fiscal year 2027.

NASA is expected to be one of the customers for commercial space stations to cut costs. “If we are just one of many customers, the providers will be able to amortize their fixed cost over a bigger base,” McAlister said. “We will see cost savings just from that alone.”

Aside from the US, Russia and China are both building their own space stations. Russia, which constructed and operates one side of the International Space Station, aims to develop and launch its own spacecraft in five or six years, the Russian Orbital Service Station.

China launched the core module of its space station in April Last year (via CGTN)

China will finish the construction of its Tiangong (Heaven’s Palace) space station this year. By the time Tiangong becomes fully operational, China will be the only country to have its own space station as ISS will complete its service life.

The ISS never had a Chinese crew member on board, nor was it involved in any Chinese project. The Wolf Amendment, enacted by US lawmakers in 2011, effectively prohibited NASA and Chinese organizations from cooperating, due to human rights and national security concerns.

NASA Encouraging Private Players

With the retirement of the ISS insight, NASA is facilitating private corporations to make a strong foothold in the space industry. NASA veteran Michael Suffredini’s firm Axiom Space is at the forefront to develop a privately-owned space station a reality. And it plans on making this space station 97% cheaper than the ISS.

In October last year, a consortium led by Lockheed Martin announced its plans to construct a permanently crewed commercial space station named Starlab which could be launched by 2027.

Jeff Bezos’ firm Blue Origin also unveiled plans for Orbital Reef, a joint venture with Boeing and some other firms. The Reef will host up to 10 people and is supposed to serve as a “mixed-use business park”. This orbiting industrial estate is expected to open by the end of the decade.

Although private-enterprise missions such as the ones offered by Elon Musk’s rocketry firm SpaceX have existed for several years, these projects are significant because they are planned on a much more splendid scale.

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