How The International Space Station Will Die

The International Space Station (ISS) is an iconic achievement of international cooperation in space research, but it won't last forever. The station was launched over 20 years ago and is now aging, and both NASA and other space agencies are starting to think about what comes next. This week, NASA released a report on what to expect from the final decade of the ISS's life.

NASA

The plan is to end operations on the ISS and destroy it in a controlled deorbit in 2031. This will be a sad end to an incredible achievement which has seen continuous human presence in space since 2000. But there is still plenty for the ISS to do in its final years.

There will continue to be a focus on scientific research on the ISS, particularly in topics which benefit all humans such as medical and environmental research. "The International Space Station is entering its third and most productive decade as a groundbreaking scientific platform in microgravity," said Robyn Gatens, director of the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters

"This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration, continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit," said Gatens. "We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow."

There will also be a focus on preparing for what comes after the ISS is deorbited, which will involve commercial companies. NASA recently selected three companies – Blue Origin, Nanoracks, and Northrop Grumman – to develop plans for commercial space stations. The idea is that one or more companies would build and operate a commercial space station, and NASA and other space agencies would pay for astronauts to stay on board and conduct research.

In addition, another company will help build out the ISS in the next decade. Axiom Space will develop commercial modules to be added to the ISS as part of a transition to a more commercially-oriented approach to space operations.

The hope is that by outsourcing parts of orbital operations to private companies, NASA will be able to save money. The approach is similar to the move from carrying astronauts to the ISS using the Space Shuttle, which NASA developed and flew until 2012, to SpaceX's Crew Dragon, which had its first operational flight in 2021. Another company, Boeing, is also working on a crew capsule called the Starliner, but this has suffered from serious problems and delays.

Despite these issues, NASA believes that it can lower costs over the long term by working with private companies, now that technologies for working in orbit are becoming more and more advanced. "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 Headquarters (via 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," said McAlister. "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."