Space

NASA plans fiery end for International Space Station in 2030

NASA plans fiery end for Inter...
NASA has scheduled the deorbitng of the ISS for 2030
NASA has scheduled the deorbitng of the ISS for 2030
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NASA has scheduled the deorbitng of the ISS for 2030
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NASA has scheduled the deorbitng of the ISS for 2030
The ISS will be retired in 2030
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The ISS will be retired in 2030
Timeline for ISS reentry
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Timeline for ISS reentry
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NASA has released its updated plans that outline the International Space Station's (ISS) final years leading up to its eventual disposal in 2030, when it will plunge into the Earth's atmosphere and burn up somewhere over the South Pacific Ocean.

Ever since it was first announced in the 1980s, the project that would eventually become the ISS has been plagued by controversy, radical changes to its mission, uncertainty as to how long the United States would remain involved in the station's running, and even how long the space lab would even exist.

The idea of an American space station began life in the mind of rocket pioneer Werner Von Braun, who saw it as a base from which crewed missions to Mars and beyond could be assembled and launched. In fact, the Space Shuttle was given the green light to ferry supplies needed for the station and the building of Mars ships.

That plan rapidly fell by the wayside when the Nixon administration postponed the Mars mission indefinitely, but, in the 1980s, the station was back on track. Officially, it was America's answer to the Soviet's Salyut space stations, though some cynics said that it was just somewhere for the Space Shuttle to go.

As time went on, Japan and ESA entered a partnership with NASA to supply modules for the station, and in 1993 Russia signed on for what was now the International Space Station – partly as a sign of solidarity between the US and post-communist Russia, but also as a way to keep Russian space engineers employed at home rather than selling their skills abroad.

Over its career, the question has remained as to the future of the ISS. Would it be abandoned in 2016? 2020? 2025? Would it make it to 2030, but without American participation for the last five years, or would Russia reclaim its modules to build its own station?

Timeline for ISS reentry
Timeline for ISS reentry

With the Biden administration committed to keeping the US involved in the ISS program through 2030, NASA has now outlined the last eight years of the station's life and how the lab will be disposed of.

Leaving aside a long list of experiments, initiatives, budget items, and general platitudes about helping all humanity, ISS operations until 2030 will involve a number of steps, some of which are already underway. New equipment, for example, is being installed in the station to keep it fully functioning, and engineering evaluations are ongoing to make sure that the ISS remains structurally sound, though NASA says that the thermal and gravitational stresses are taking their toll and the station will not remain safe beyond the end of the decade.

Another part of the plan is to move away from the ISS being a purely government-run station to being one involving more and more private businesses. As part of this, NASA is funding various projects to enhance private industry's knowledge, skills, and experience in working in low-Earth orbit so it can take responsibility for tasks other than running experiments or ferrying crews from American soil to the station.

The eventual goal is for companies to build their own space stations, beginning with private modules that will be installed on the ISS for testing and evaluation before undocking to form the core of new stations. By 2030, NASA will be sending its astronauts to these stations or hiring private astronauts to carry out services for the space agency.

Without saying it in so many words, America's vision is for low-Earth orbit to be the domain of private companies who will work for NASA as well as other customers as the agency focuses its human spaceflight program on the Moon and Mars, with perhaps a national space laboratory in Earth orbit.

As to the ISS, the plan is to carry on with normal operations, though from 2026 on the lab will be allowed to gradually lose altitude. From June to November 2030, three additional uncrewed Progress cargo ships will dock with the station and use their engines to slow down the ISS. The exact timetable will depend on solar activity, which can expand the Earth's atmosphere and increase drag.

When the station reaches an altitude of 280 km (174 miles), it will pass the point of no return and it will not be possible to return it to a safe orbit. After the final engine burns, it will plunge into the Earth's atmosphere in a controlled reentry that will see it break up over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), where any unconsumed parts of the station will fall into the sea.

"The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA. "We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space. The report we have delivered to Congress describes, in detail, our comprehensive plan for ensuring a smooth transition to commercial destinations after retirement of the International Space Station in 2030."

The announcement of the official extension of the ISS mission through 2030 can be seen in the video below.

ISS Endgame

Source: NASA (PDF)

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12 comments
12 comments
CdR
Does seem a waste of solar collectors and primary electrical gear that might be repurposed for a couple of 70 ton modules lifted up there by a Falcon Heavy. The rest of the station... yeah what with fungus and other stuff say bye.
History Nut
Seems kind of a waste to me. All those years building and maintaining it have certainly paid for themselves but why are we just throwing it away? Yes, it is 'wearing out' due to aging of materials and stress damage but wouldn't learning how to repair and upgrade such damage/aging be good research for further deep space missions? Hopefully a private enterprise will make NASA 'an offer they can't refuse' and take it over so it can be a resource for the future. Why not slowly move it to the Moon so it can serve as an orbital station there? Tractor boosters could do the job in a low-stress fashion. If nothing else, move it to a stable orbit so it at least can be a space "junk yard" for other builds to use. Lofting hardware off Earth to space is costly so why not use hardware already there?
epochdesign
CdR and HistoryNut make excellent points here. There is absolutely no logical or intelligent reasoning to junk the ISS. At the very least, the solar arrays could be reused, and I'm sure many other bits could be salvaged. Perhaps the pods could be repurposed and added to a new station for storage or research if outfitted with a membrane liner. Or as History Nut put it, use it to learn how to repair this type of damage, while in space. At some $50,000/Lb replacement cost (cost to make + cost to launch), ditching the ISS is an inexcusable waste of taxpayer dollars.
Douglas Rogers
Stick an ion drive on it and use the solar array for power to move it to a La Grange point.
neutrino23
I think it will not be repurposed for several reasons.

It is extremely costly to put anything in orbit putting new instruments in orbit would be more valuable.

The ISS is wearing out. Everything is degrading. Low earth orbit is a very harsh environment. Everything is constantly blasted by oxygen ions as well as other plasmas and protons from the sun and cosmic rays, as well as strong UV and x-rays from the sun.

If it is not maintained then it will fall to earth randomly at some future time. An object that size could do considerable damage if it landed in an inhabited area.
aksdad
Echoing what others have said, it's a waste to throw it away. A huge amount of money, effort, and fuel went into building it. Even if we don't have any immediate plans for it, keeping it in orbit with occasional boosts from automated rockets until we decide to retrofit it into a way station to Mars or the Moon or a new-and-improved station for experiments seems much more cost-effective than destroying it and building another from scratch.
ljaques
OK, Elon. Offer them a dollar to take it off their hands and send it to L1 (good idea, Doug) where you can bring your asteroids for mining precious metals in space. Scrap the crap and save the valuables, like the solar arrays and substructures.
toddzrx
Good riddance! Our space program has turned into a poster child of government waste, with the ISS at the center of it.
TechGazer
I think if they put it up for sale, they'd get a buyer who'd make use of it. What government bureaucrats think is junk (doesn't benefit them personally) might be a potential goldmine for private enterprise.
Smokey_Bear
Well, I gotta disagree with everyone else here, it's time has come & gone.
It's outdated, eventually, it becomes cheaper to replace then to repair, no different then anything here on Earth.
By the time this thing takes it's plunge into the atmosphere, we will have far better stations already up there. We have several great rockets being built right now, that is going to make the cost of getting tonnage to space fall drastically, and I'm not just talking about the Starship.
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