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NASA wants to keep the ISS operational to 2030 before shifting to commercial space stations, but those plans face several challenges. (credit: NASA)

ISS in the balance

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Last Tuesday, hundreds of people gathered for the first International Space Station Research and Development Conference to take place in person in three years, having gone virtual in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic. But just as they were settling into their seats in a ballroom at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, coffee and pastries in hand for the opening plenary, came word that the ISS might soon be ending.

“We’re going to go to 2030 full up,” said Montalbano. “Anybody who thinks that there is a different plan, you’re wrong. We’re going to 2030.”

That, at least, was the perception many got from the push alerts buzzing on their cellphones. Yuri Borisov, the new head of the Russian space agency Roscosmos, had reportedly told Russian president Vladimir Putin that Russia would exit the ISS partnership after 2024. Those reports interpreted Borisov’s comments to mean that Russia would quit the partnership immediately after 2024, putting the station’s near-term future in jeopardy. RIP, ISS.

As it turns out, not much has actually changed on the ISS, as Borisov primarily reiterated past reticence by Russia to commit to operating the station to 2030 rather than giving up on the station in two years. The incident, though, illustrates the challenges NASA and its Western partners face in maintaining a human presence in low Earth orbit, which include not just dealing with Russia but also ensuring that private stations will be ready by the time ISS is retired.

(Much) after 2024

NASA officials at the conference were, if not caught by surprise by Borisov’s comments, had very little to say about them. “We haven’t received any official word from the partner as to the news today,” said Robyn Gatens, ISS director at NASA headquarters, during the conference’s opening sessions. The intergovernmental agreement that governs the ISS partnership requires countries to provide at least one year’s notice of their intent to withdraw.

Activities on the ISS itself were business as usual as well. “We haven’t heard anything officially” about Russia’s plans for its future on the ISS, said NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, currently on the station, during a live video link. He emphasized that “everybody is working together” on the station, including the three Russian cosmonauts there.

Ever since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine started in February, NASA has emphasized that station operations had been largely unaffected even as tensions between Russia and the West cut off cooperation in other areas, such as the joint European-Russian ExoMars mission that was scheduled to launch in September but is now indefinitely delayed. NASA administrator Bill Nelson stated repeatedly that cooperation among ISS crewmembers, and between mission controls in Houston and Moscow, remained professional.

That cooperation reached a new milestone July 15 when NASA and Roscosmos announced they signed a long-awaited agreement for “integrated crews” on Soyuz and Crew Dragon. The two agencies would barter seats on those flights, allowing Russian cosmonauts to fly on Crew Dragon and American astronauts to fly on Soyuz without exchanging funds. Doing so ensures that there will be at least one American and one Russian on the station should either vehicle be grounded for an extended period.

The first such integrated crews are scheduled to fly in September. NASA astronaut Frank Rubio will be on the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft scheduled to launch in mid-September, while Roscosmos cosmonaut will be part of the Crew-5 mission launching in late September. NASA and Roscosmos also made assignments for the Soyuz MS-23 and Crew-6 missions next spring.

NASA went into the ISS Research and Development Conference intending to focus on its commitment to keeping the ISS operational through 2030. The week before, senators released the latest version of a bill ultimately called the CHIPS and Science Act, primarily to support domestic production of semiconductors. That bill, which the House and Senate passed last week, also included a NASA authorization act that formally extended ISS operations from 2024 to 2030, something the White House and NASA had already been planning for. Canada, Europe, and Japan all supported that extension.

“We’re going to go to 2030 full up,” said Joel Montalbano, NASA ISS program manager, during comments at the conference. “Anybody who thinks that there is a different plan, you’re wrong. We’re going to 2030.”

When reporters approached Montalbano after the conference session, though, with questions about Borisov’s statements, he declined to comment, saying he would come back in a half-hour. He did not return.

“We just said that after 2024 we are starting the exit process,” Borisov said. “Whether it will be in mid-2024 or 2025 it all depends, in fact, including on the state of performance of the ISS itself.”

Late Tuesday, NASA issued a statement that confirmed that it heard nothing official from Roscosmos about withdrawing from the ISS. “NASA is committed to the safe operation of the International Space Station through 2030, and is coordinating with our partners,” Nelson said in the brief statement. “NASA has not been made aware of decisions from any of the partners, though we are continuing to build future capabilities to assure our major presence in low Earth orbit.”

The next day, Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator, offered a similar message at the conference, referring to that statement and others. “We are staying the course,” he said. “We are working to extend the International Space Station to 2030. It’s got good years left.”

On Friday, Borisov spoke again, this time appearing to clean up the mess his earlier comments created. Speaking with Russian television, and in comments also posted on the Roscosmos website, he confirmed that Russia had yet to formally notify the other ISS partners of any withdrawal, and suggesting that “after 2024” could mean years after 2024.

“We just said that after 2024 we are starting the exit process,” he said according to a translation of the remarks. “Whether it will be in mid-2024 or 2025 it all depends, in fact, including on the state of performance of the ISS itself.” He added that the notification process would take place at least a year, and perhaps up to two years, in advance of any withdrawal.

One reason for Russia to withdraw, he suggested, was a lack of research to do on the station. “From a scientific point of view, we do not see any additional dividends, stretching this process until 2030,” he said, arguing that the other partners were not as far along in their research because their modules were added to the station later. (The newest ISS module is Nauka, or the Multipurpose Lab Module, that Russia installed on the station one year ago.)

He said Roscosmos was also concerned about the aging core modules of the station that could result in an “avalanche-like” cascade of failures. The time needed to maintain the station was now beginning “to exceed all reasonable limits,” even on the US segment, he said, taking up crew time that could be spent on research—although Borisov said there was little research to do there.

Those complaints are not new. Borisov’s predecessor, Dmitry Rogozin—dismissed by Putin July 15 although reportedly being considered for other Russian government posts—raised similar concerns about the utility and health of the ISS, which was a key reason why Russia was reticent to endorse an extension of the station. Russia is planning its own national space station to succeed the ISS, although it’s unlikely the first modules of that station will be ready before the end of the decade. If Russia terminates its participation in the ISS before then, its cosmonauts will have nowhere to go.

That’s how Gatens interpreted Borisov’s comments. “I think the Russians, just like us, are thinking ahead to what’s next for them,” she said at the conference. “As we’re planning for a transition after 2030 to commercially owned and operated space stations in low Earth orbit, they have similar plans.”

NASA’s safety advisers, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), have been closely monitoring the status of the station. Despite some concerns about issues like a slow air leak in one compartment of the Zvezda service module, they said at their most recent meeting July 21 that they saw no major issues that could prevent it from operating through the end of the decade.

However, Mark Sirangelo, a member of the panel who formerly ran what is now Sierra Space, said the agency will need to closely monitor the station’s health. “The ISS is now in its third decade and it is feeling its age,” he said. “It faces new challenges all the time.”

That maintenance also has not affected station utilization. “We’re flush with crew time,” said Kirt Costello, chief scientist for the ISS program at NASA, during a briefing in June. While crew time had once been a bottleneck for doing station research, he said the key factor now was getting larger experiment payloads up to the station and then back down.

Nanoracks, Voyager Space, and Lockheed Martin are cooperating on a commercial space station called Starlab that could be operational as soon as 2027. (credit: Nanoracks)

A precarious trajectory for the ISS transition

Even NASA, though, acknowledges the ISS will not last forever. It has been pushing a transition plan that, by late this decade, would see it shift operations from the ISS to one or more commercial space stations. That would allow NASA to retire the station, and its significant expense, in 2030.

NASA’s ISS transition plans “are on a precarious trajectory to realization on a schedule and within the projected resources needed to maintain a NASA LEO presence,” Sanders said.

To that end, NASA has been supporting proposals by several companies to develop private space stations. An agreement two and a half years ago with Axiom Space gives that company access to an ISS port to which it will attach several commercial modules starting as soon as 2024, which will serve as the core of a future standalone commercial space station. In December, NASA made more than $400 million in awards to proposals led by Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman to fund initial design work for their proposed commercial space stations, all set to be ready by late in the decade.

Not everyone is convinced of that schedule, though. Last November, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) expressed its doubts. “In our judgment, even if early design maturation is achieved in 2025—a challenging prospect in itself—a commercial platform is not likely to be ready until well after 2030,” it said, citing as evidence the schedules of past human spaceflight development programs, including commercial crew.

“We found that commercial partners agree that NASA’s current timeframe to design and build a human-rated destination platform is unrealistic,” the report added, not disclosing the identities of those companies.

At the ASAP meeting last month, members held similar views. Amy Donahue, a member of the panel said NASA’s current schedule of releasing formal requirements for its use of commercial stations in late 2024 results in “little margin” in having stations meeting those requirements ready in 2030.

Meeting that schedule, she warned, would require the fastest human spaceflight development project since Mercury. “It raises some question about what NASA might do to mitigate the risk of failing to meet this schedule,” she said. “It’s certainly a concern for us from a risk perspective.”

The chair of ASAP, Patricia Sanders, agreed. NASA’s ISS transition plans “are on a precarious trajectory to realization on a schedule and within the projected resources needed to maintain a NASA LEO presence,” she said. “This is an area of concern for us.”

It is not, though, an apparent area of concern for NASA or the companies involved. During a panel session at the ISS Research and Development Conference Wednesday, representatives of NASA and the four companies working with the agency on ISS said they’re confident that commercial stations will be ready before 2030 to handle the transition from the ISS.

Christian Maender, executive vice president of in-space solutions at Axiom Space, said construction of its first two modules remains on schedule, with the first launching in late 2024 and the second in 2025. “The only concerns that come up is if the space station is going to be ready for us,” he said.

Representatives of Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman, and Sierra Space—partnered with Blue Origin on the Orbital Reef station—offered similar views, all saying that technical development of their stations were on schedule, if still in early phases. “No worries there,” said Amela Wilson, CEO of Nanoracks.

Angela Hart, manager of NASA’s Commercial LEO Destinations program, suggested that those earlier criticisms of the schedule of the program assumed more traditional government efforts. “Because of those motivations and the differences of this framework, you’re going to see a different kind of development that you just can’t compare to a typical government program development, which is what OIG and ASAP are doing, because that’s what we've done in the past,” she said.

The use of public private partnerships, though, is a not a panacea. The commercial crew program was based on such partnerships and competition between the companies, yet SpaceX did not start flying people until 2020, years behind the original schedule, and Boeing has yet to fly people.

The panelists were a little less confident about another aspect of commercial space stations: the mix of markets and customers that will use them. While NASA will be an early and major customer of such stations, the agency has no desire to be the only one, expecting companies to find other users for the stations to help share the costs.

“Building a space station is half the challenge. Building the business of the space station is the other half of the challenge, and maybe the more difficult one, in my opinion,” Mastracchio said.

“It’s obviously very dependent on the market,” said Rick Mastracchio, director of strategy and business development at Northrop Grumman, of his company’s plans for a commercial station. “That’s really the big question. We can get there before ISS comes down, but it’s all dependent on the market.”

“The thing that keeps me up at night is mostly focused on how mature can I make those markets when we’re ready to be fully independent,” Maender said. “I have high hopes, based on the discussions that we’ve had with clients and customers, that there seems to be a lot of interest.”

Companies have talked about a wide range of customers for those stations, including space tourists, commercial researchers, astronauts from other space agencies, and applications ranging from in-space manufacturing to entertainment. It can be difficult, some said, to get a grasp on who is interested and how much demand they will generate.

“Building a space station is half the challenge. Building the business of the space station is the other half of the challenge, and maybe the more difficult one, in my opinion,” Mastracchio said. He said Northrop is partnering with “a lot of different folks” to understand the potential markets and their requirements for a commercial station. “We’re using that to fully define what our space station is going to be.”

Janet Kavandi, president of Sierra Space, said the Orbital Reef team was keeping an open mind about unconventional markets. “You do have to find a way to make it sustainable,” she said. “You could make a perfume from flowers that are grown in a vegetable habitat up there. Just the uniqueness of it being grown in space is something that would probably sell.”

“You could have distilleries up there,” she added.

That might sound a little, well, crazy, but NASA isn’t shying away from anything that can demonstrate the utility of LEO operations and the business case for commercial stations. “Bring crazy ideas to us,” Montalbano said. “We can lean forward.”

“Give us the opportunity to use this space station. We’ve got a decade,” he said. Technically, it’s less than a decade to 2030, but NASA might have much less time depending on what the Russians do. Or it might be closer to a decade if commercial space stations can’t meet their ambitious schedules.

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