Last week, NASA announced that the Biden-Harris Administration intends to extend International Space Station (ISS) operations through 2030, extending the US’s previous funding deadline by a few years.
“As more and more nations are active in space, it’s more important than ever that the United States continues to lead the world in growing international alliances and modeling rules and norms for the peaceful and responsible use of space,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a NASA statement Friday.
Funding for the ISS was previously set to expire in 2024, as per an act of Congress in 2014. But NASA anticipates that it will officially fund the ISS through 2030, says Robyn Gatens, director of the ISS for space operations.
The extension was unsurprising to Wendy Whitman Cobb, a professor of strategy and security studies at the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. “I think the plan has always been sort of to extend it,” she says. “Obviously, NASA funding is always sort of this political battle of sorts, and so Congress has only been willing to fund it out a certain number of years.”
The International Space Station’s mission: a history
The first parts of the ISS were launched into orbit in 1998, and it was constructed in lower-Earth orbit over the years, piece by piece, like an outer space Lego set. The 356-foot-long lab has hosted more than 3,000 research investigations over the past 24 years; studies include how to grow peas in space and how space travel affects itty-bitty baby squid.
As a collaboration between five space agencies and 15 countries, the ISS has been continuously manned since November 2000. It’s been a “great symbol of international cooperation amongst countries even when countries disagree with one another,” Whitman Cobb says. Even Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos, has been a significant contributor.
According to Gatens, the purpose of the ISS has greatly evolved over that timespan.
“The first decade, we were really just assembling the space station … The second decade, we really started using the platform and expanding what we could do with it,” Gatens says. “Now that we’ve entered the third decade … we can really return a lot of value from this platform. So we’re calling it kind of the decade of results.”
The ISS extension to 2030 is vital to NASA’s plans to return to the moon with the Artemis mission in 2025 and to launch a manned mission to Mars further in the future. “It provides the perfect testbed and platform for technologies such as life support systems that will be required for long-duration missions,” Gatens says. “We need a long time to test these systems so that we can count on them and know they’re going to be reliable.” She also notes that the 2030 extension is necessary to continue researching the possible human health risks of extensive space travel and ways to counteract them.
The other important reason to keep the ISS afloat is to make sure there’s a continuous presence in low-Earth orbit (LEO) until commercial space stations can take over. In December, NASA funded three Space Act Agreements with Nanoracks LLC, Northrop Grumman Systems Corp. and Blue Origin (run by former Amazon CEO and space cowboy Jeff Bezos, who ironically sued NASA back in August) to build private space stations.
NASA seeks to avoid a gap in the US’s presence in LEO, especially with China planning to launch its own Tiangong space station by the end of 2022.
“We can’t allow the perception that we will cede our 20-plus years of humans working in LEO to others,” Jeffrey Manber, Nanoracks Chairman of the Board, said in a House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee hearing last September.
“It became clear to us that it was going to take a little bit more time than the mid-2020s for us to enable a smooth transition and not have a gap,” Gatens says.
According to Gatens, NASA predicts there will be operational, commercial space stations by 2028, leaving a two-year overlap with the ISS.
A microgravity lab built to last
But the question remains, can the ISS hold itself together until 2030? The station is already starting to show cracks in its surface and is vulnerable to space debris such as Russian satellites blown to smithereens. However, both NASA and Boeing, the primary contractor of the ISS, are confident in the viability of its infrastructure.
“The International Space Station has shown in our assessment to be in terrific condition and is in great shape through 2030 and well beyond,” John Mulholland, Boeing vice president and program manager of the International Space Station program, writes in an email.
Gatens echoes that, saying that NASA’s analysis showed “no red flags” but that, as always, they would continue to monitor the health of the station.
But the biggest challenge to the ISS might not come from outer space after all. “I think the immediate problem is actually going to be getting Russia to join in with this, particularly given the other international geopolitical circumstances that we find ourselves confronting with them,” Whitman Cobb says.
According to Gatens, every ISS space agency partner has to go through the same process with their own government to extend funding for the lab. However, she adds that “at the space agency level, [Russia is] committed to do the extension.”
The fate of the ISS after 2030
Even with all the space agencies on board, it seems that the ISS will finally meet its maker in 2030. Gatens says that the only reason she could see the station being used past this next decade would be because commercial space stations weren’t operational yet.
“I think this is probably the last leg,” Whitman Cobb says, noting that by 2030 it would have been almost 40 years since some of the technology was designed. “Space is a very harsh environment in terms of radiation, debris, and the difficulty of operating there, so I don’t think there’s much appetite to go beyond 2030.”
Once all the partnering space agencies are ready to cease ISS operations, there’s still the matter of deorbiting the 925,335-pound hunk of metal, which is roughly the size of a football field.
“This is a large piece of machinery. You need to make sure that it comes down over unpopulated waters so that you’re not hurting and dangering or damaging anybody or any property,” Whitman Cobb says. “I think that will be the ultimate challenge.”