The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Axiom station
Commercial space station modules and standalong space stations, like what Axiom Space is proposing to develop, may represent the future after the ISS, but that transition remains uncertain. (credit: Axiom Space)

What is the future of the International Space Station?

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Time is not a friend for the International Space Station. American efforts to extend its closing until 2030 possibly beyond are dependent upon evaluations of its continued safety and integrity. Materials in space age under the stresses of the space environment and deteriorate over time. Yet, evaluating the possible future for the ISS will not be strictly based upon technical factors. The states participating in the ISS all pursue various agendas. For most, being on the ISS is only part of their space portfolio, albeit a large one in many cases. So, ending the ISS and deorbiting the structure is a dramatic shift in direction for them, especially if terminated earlier than projected. What would replace that endeavor remains unclear.

Why now?

Let us be clear, the evaluation of the ISS will be a technical exercise but politics in the end will determine the ultimate outcome. For the United States, the ISS has faded in importance with the Artemis Program first up. The station’s importance declined earlier during the Constellation Program even before construction was completed. At that time, the ISS would have been terminated by 2016.

Let us be clear, the evaluation of the ISS will be a technical exercise but politics in the end will determine the ultimate outcome.

Arrival on the lunar surface in 2024 by the US is improbable given the delays over lunar program funding, both in terms of congressional funding support or lack thereof and the decision to select only a single contractor for the human lunar lander (SpaceX). That latter decision is being challenged by Blue Origin with unknown delays created by the legal process. More telling is the delay imposed by failure to develop a suitable spacesuit for the mission to the lunar surface. This is a single-point failure for the program. There is no interest in a one-way mission back to the lunar surface. That may occur effectively in a future Mars mission unless the environmental hazards of inflight radiation and microgravity are neutralized. The more that is learned about the space environment, the more hazardous we find radiation effects are on the human body.

As one solution, NASA is now moving toward fostering private space station options, the Commercial LEO Destinations (CLD) project. What this means is under development presently, although the possibilities for startup concepts is still fluid. The clearest direction is in the statement: “With commercial destinations, we believe it will create a self-sustaining and self-reinforcing low-Earth orbit economy—one where the private sector is the main player, and NASA is one of many customers.” Unfortunately, the previously most visible company pursuing habitats in space, Bigelow Aerospace, has ended operations. Its module on the ISS, the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), was the first effort at a private station module. Operations ceased due, according to Bigelow, NASA’s failure to pay what is owed.

In a sense, the successful experience of the NASA cargo and crew private flight options encourages NASA to duplicate that success in a private space station endeavor. The agency’s share of the cost would, in principle, be significantly reduced given the potential for economic return from a future space station. The ISS is slowly becoming in one sense a partial proof of concept: one can potentially make money from in-space activities besides the electronic movement of data through comsats or remote sensing or satellite navigation applications.

This represents another manifestation of NewSpace success altering the policy context within which NASA decisions are made. NASA will participate through contracts to use whatever space station is constructed. Through early engagement, NASA will influence what how the new space station is configured but will not dictate the specifics. Private sector funding will become more central to the project than those two flight programs servicing the ISS. In these earlier and ongoing programs, NASA was more motivated to pay because it needed to access the ISS for both practical and symbolic reasons. The United States could not allow the ISS to fail while US prestige hinged on being able to independently access the ISS, not at the whim of the Russians. Russian space agency leaders had a habit of ridiculing the American loss of flight capability to the ISS.

The questions arising about the ISS and its capacity for continued operations are moving possibly faster than originally thought.

In a more cynical note, one can observe a stream of reports and accusations from especially Russian sources since at least 2018 that the ISS is failing. Air leaks were discovered several times in the Zarya module: small ones but concerning. Russian officials also accused US astronauts of creating holes in a Soyuz capsule, reports denied by the United States. More recent reports have circulated that cracks have appeared in the ISS structure, the Zarya module, suggesting metal fatigue has advanced sufficiently to render the ISS unsafe. The latter accusation reappeared in the aftermath of an accident when the Russian Nauka module docked with the ISS. An apparent software glitch caused the module to fire its engines after docking, knocking the ISS out of its normal orientation. This dramatically endangered the space station, but control was reacquired and the station brought back under control and into the correct orientation. After that, more reports of cracks in the ISS began to appear suggesting the ISS was unsafe.

Shutting down the ISS prior to 2030 (the US suggested end date) would free Russia to pursue other pathways. One obvious option would be joining China in its expanding space station program. The two states have already begun planning a station on the lunar surface. This alliance would be consistent with broader Russian actions although Russia would be clearly the second to China. Russia’s space program is in a period of transition. The termination of the Soyuz missions carrying US astronauts to the ISS removes the fiscal incentive for Russian participation in the ISS. Russia has spoken of a Russian space station but financially that might be a reach given other national priorities. Clearly, Russia currently is unlikely to make the investment necessary for such a project. Russia’s biggest advantage until recently was its skilled human capital and inventories of technologies left over from the Soviets. The human capital has aged out of the system while the inventories have run down. More recent technology development has taken longer than usual given Russian capabilities.

Russia to the side, other partners in the ISS may become uneasy about future directions. China has offered the opportunities for participation, but the actual contours of possible activity are being worked out. The Europeans are the most likely important group considering large scale engagement in the Chinese space station while Japan remains closer to the United States for now.

The murky future

The questions arising about the ISS and its capacity for continued operations are moving possibly faster than originally thought. One must remember the ISS took a long time for its construction to be essentially completed. Earlier NASA difficulties in program management led to a program much different and later than originally conceived. Cost overruns were persistent undermining congressional confidence in the agency. Ironically, the Columbia shuttle accident forced NASA to set a completion date and then push to accomplish that goal albeit a year late. Since ISS completion, additional components have been added but much of the activity has been maintenance and upgrading existing capabilities.

The station has now broadened its mix of research and development tasks to include more commercial applications (at a small scale but a start.) The point is that the ISS may finally be pushing into realms of activity beyond simply supporting NASA’s human space exploration efforts. At one point under the Constellation program, all research on the ISS was directed to support human space exploration. ISS is finally demonstrating what was originally envisioned: a space station as a location for a wide spectrum of research and development activities.

This broader spectrum of activities provides an example for a multitask-oriented successor space station rather than a simply a space hotel for wealthy tourists. Those activities could be supported but as part of a viable economic activity. The groundwork for such a general-purpose facility in Earth orbit would become the foundation for an international venue. As such it could complement the Chinese Space Station (CSS), broadening human activity in space. Through either location, space can be opened to the global community. The private sector would provide access, open to those with their payloads capable of paying the necessary costs and who have reserved space on the station.

ISS is finally demonstrating what was originally envisioned: a space station as a location for a wide spectrum of research and development activities.

The future of the ISS is clearly finite but when exactly it ends is unclear. The Russian/Soviet Mir space station provides an example of how long a structure in space can survive and be productive, albeit on a declining curve. Mir was poorly maintained due to Russian economic issues, but its demise occurred because Russia could not participate in the ISS and still sustain the Mir. Mir left orbit in 2001, still useful but no long viable given limited resources. The ISS is the Mir of this generation, possibly becoming obsolete but still functional for most purposes. The CSS also has a finite lifespan, but no one currently knows what that means. China will have to decide when that time comes and what is to replace it.

For human space exploration and exploitation of outer space to be truly globally productive requires maximum effort. Space stations are few and far between, so discarding one prematurely is unlikely to advance the general enterprise. China and the United States are presently competing with each other but the infrastructure both are building, separately or in association with others, must be employed for the pursuit of peaceful exploration and exploitation of outer space. Such an approach opens outer space throughout the global community by the providing the first step to everywhere in outer space. To this point, space had been conceptualized in terms of missions rather than functions. Therefore, the US goes the Moon or Mars in a series of distinct missions rather than making space access and habitation a routine and continuing process. Through the latter, others now earthbound will be able to join the great quest of space exploration and exploitation. One must remember that the latter of those two activities is the future of space. While all humans can benefit from activities in space, the few conducted today are too limiting in terms of engaging the human race in space.

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