Still unfinished, engineers around the world ponder what to do with the space station—park it somewhere else, turn it into a lab or just let it burn. With calls to upconvert the ISS into a spaceship already hitting fever pitch, a leading aerospace expert checks in with some players from the space industry.
The International Space Station isn’t scheduled to be completed for two more years, but a growing chorus of engineers and executives is already brainstorming about what to do with the ISS after its life span ends in 2015. Given how long it has taken to put together the actual pieces in space—the Japanese experiment module Kibo was finally installed just a few weeks ago—and the tens of billions of dollars sunk into the station, it’s understandable that many would like to see the working power of the ISS extended to 2020 or beyond. Plans range from the humble, like guiding it into a fiery reentry, to the ludicrous, like driving the station to the moon and parking it there.
I say ludicrous because of the complex engineering issues involved with rethinking the space station’s life span. It is, after all, made up of many separate pieces that have been delivered and assembled at different times. The original core, the Russian Zarya module, has a rated lifetime on orbit of 15 years, but it was launched almost 10 years ago and should be removed and deorbited in 2013. In practice, of course, space hardware often lasts long past its design life, and there may be ways of refurbishing those things on orbit (e.g., seals) that might degrade, while the basic structure remains sound. Nonetheless, an aging station will raise the same issues that are currently forcing the space shuttle into retirement to avoid an expensive “recertification”—particularly since no one really knows what that means, since it was never “certified” in the first place.
Will China, Russia or Hoteliers Close in on a Post-U.S. ISS? The biggest immediate problem with operating toward an indefinite future is a basic one: transportation to change out crews and deliver cargo such as food, water and clean clothes. After the shuttle is retired (planned for 2010), the only available way of getting to the ISS will be the Russian Soyuz, which is currently in use. NASA says its new Orion/Ares launch system could resupply ISS when it’s ready in 2015, but there are doubts that NASA will be involved with the station past 2015. The agency remains noncommittal; the United States government has no policy covering the ISS’s retirement. “[Michael Griffin] has said that he’d like to see it continue beyond that period, but that’s a decision for the next administration, or perhaps the one after it,” says NASA spokesman John Yembrick, “There is no specific plan for the facility after 2015.” (As I outlined for PM earlier this year, John McCain and Barack Obama’s space policies have begun to lay out ideas on that front.)
If America’s focus on the moon and Mars removes the U.S. from the ISS partnership, there would be nothing to keep the remaining partners from bringing in new players, such as China, with their own resupply capabilities. The station’s foreign partners and other stakeholders recently met to discuss the issue. And there’s real interest from the Europeans and Japanese in developing their own independent capabilities to provide crew and cargo transfer. European countries are also talking to Russia about a joint effort for a new crew vehicle.
Some space program proponents want to see the United States stay involved with the ISS. “I’d like to think that we will continue to support it and participate actively,” says Marty Hauser, vice president of operations research and analysis for the Space Foundation, an advocacy group based in Colorado Springs. “It is a good model for an international alliance that we may ultimately need to see [the planned U.S. trip to the moon and Mars] to fruition, given how expensive it is going to be. We may not be able or willing to afford it on our own.”