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Opinion: Should the ISS be given a new lease on life?


January 9, 2014

ISS receives reprieve to 2024 (Photo: NASA)

ISS receives reprieve to 2024 (Photo: NASA)

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The Obama Administration has approved an extension of the International Space Station (ISS) program from 2020 until at least 2024. This is an unfunded statement of intent, which must be both approved and funded by the US Congress. Neither NASA nor the White House have revealed from where the additional US$4 billion per year of funding for this extended operation will come. At present none of the ISS international partners have plans to support such an extension. Is this the best decision for the future of manned space exploration?

The deorbiting of the US Orbital Segment (USOS) of the ISS was originally scheduled for 2016. Deorbiting was extended in 2010 to 2020, but Russia has at least nominal plans to use their most recent ISS segments as the core of a new space station designed as an assembly shop to support future deep-space missions. The US extension to 2024 may or may not affect Russia's plans.

Unfortunately, as the USOS was not designed for disassembly, the US legal responsibility [PDF] for removing the USOS from orbit will eventually result in throwing away roughly a million pounds of refined materials that are already in orbit – placed there at a cost of about $30K/lb ($66K/kg). Even at future launch costs of $1000/lb ($2200/kg), the USOS is worth around a billion dollars in reusable materials. Throwing this lot away is not necessarily the best use of space resources. It might be better to push it into a higher orbit and treat it as a mine in space, or a scrap yard.

It is interesting to look at the reasons put forward (not necessarily in order) for maintaining the US ISS activities by the official communiqué from John Holdren (Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy) and Charles Bolden (NASA Administrator.).

One contentious claim is that extending the ISS will "help cement continuing US leadership in human spaceflight." Leadership is earned, not claimed. I believe that the US ceded this position some years ago by voluntarily demolishing its ability to launch people into space, leaving only the Russian and Chinese space programs with that ability. The US is playing catch-up, not leading the pack.

Another claim is that the ISS is needed for "an increasingly important role in the study of the Earth and its changing climate." The statement lists a number of instruments that will be sent to the ISS over the next few years, but in fact none of these gain any real benefit by being mounted on the ISS. Their missions would be carried out less expensively and more flexibly by systems of satellites.

There is only one experiment on ISS for which it has been claimed that positioning on the ISS was required, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2. This task was considered sufficiently important that one additional Shuttle flight was authorized to put it in place. The problem? AMS2 required about 2-2.5 kW of power, and that was supposed to make it impractical to put on a satellite. The thing is, a modern communications satellite provides in the range of 6-8 kW of continuous power for its operations. A satellite dedicated to the AMS2 would have cost a fraction of the $1.5B Shuttle flight.

We'll go quickly by the claim that research done on the ISS has been worth the cost. Similar to claims made about the entire space effort, it hasn't.

Holdren and Bolden also advance the notion that further research on spaceflight-associated human-health issues must be carried out aboard the ISS "in support of planned long-duration human missions beyond low-Earth orbit—including our planned human mission to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s." There already exist medical records on people who have spent years in orbit, which one would think would provide answers to many of the open questions. Many others, such as physiological response to cosmic radiation exposure while weightless, cannot be examined in the ISS. In either case, even without the extension, there remain six years without the extension to fill in the holes.

It's also worth noting that the planned "human mission to an asteroid" has transmogrified into robotic capture of a (tiny) asteroid or rock from one, orbiting it around the Moon, and sending what is essentially a manned lunar orbit mission to work with it. Not really a deep space manned mission with unknown conditions.

The fact is that the hardest medical problems with interplanetary space travel are extremely prolonged exposure to weightlessness (we have nearly 150 man-years total experience in zero-g; Sergey Krikalev alone has spent 2.2 years in orbit), radiation exposure, which can't be endured on a trip to Mars, so it has to be cured (shielded), and keeping 2-3 people in a closet-sized capsule for several years while keeping them from driving each other around the bend. This latter is often considered the most difficult part of surviving interplanetary travel at our level of technology.

It is also argued that the ISS extension will provide more opportunities for the commercial space industry to get off the ground. The problem is that the extension will keep the commercial space industry highly focused on a type of commercial activity that will suddenly disappear when NASA sticks an Orion with the ESA rocket propelled Service Module on top of an SLS booster rocket sitting atop a cluster of two or three SLS boosters (this combination will get an Orion capsule to any LEO orbit).

I believe it is easier to argue that, compared to enabling three Orion/SLS manned flights during the 2020s at an overall cost estimated at $41B (add-on flights are estimated by NASA at nearly $2B a throw), it is probably worth evaluating the use of slightly stretched Dragon/SpaceX Falcon Heavy craft, currently aimed at the capability of lifting 57 metric tons to LEO with an estimated per launch cost of under $200M. Even given that both costs are probably conservative, it would be difficult for the cost of the Falcon Heavy to catch up with that of the SLS. Of course, if the $4 billion a year from 2021 through 2024 comes out of the SLS development budget, there won't be an SLS in the 2020s.

The ISS has already served its main real-world goal of helping us learn to live and work in space. Should the ISS be deorbited in 2024, 2020, or 2016, boosted to serve as a source of materials, or meet some other fate? In the long run, it probably doesn't matter. Ultimately, we as a species will have to find a reason for living, working, and establishing property rights in space so compelling that its pursuit can't be upset by economic fluctuations or the decisions of a single government.

(Full disclosure: your correspondent is a US citizen who has been involved in various parts of his career with NASA projects.)

Source: NASA

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer. All articles by Brian Dodson

I believe we should blast it into a graveyard orbit so it can be used for scrap at a later date. Way too much valuable material to waste by having it fall to earth or burn up on reentry.


Might be time to invite participation by China. They ain't broke. Regardless, de-orbiting ANYTHING that we paid good treasure to put on orbit is insanity. Of course, that's the modern America brand now. Used to be hard value, but now it's cost-plus insanity for the American standard.


Boost it and abandon it. This will give private space goers a place to go in space, like diving a wreck in the ocean or crash it on the moon .


Letting that much material de-orbit is a total waste. Break it up, re-purpose it or sell it to someone who will use it. Especially considering the cost of getting it into orbit.


Drop it on the Moon so it can be recycled and used for future constructions.


Parking the ISS without keeping it resupplied and maintained wouldn't work. It would eventually lose stability and its tumble rate would accelerate till it flies apart, producing more orbital navigation hazards.

John Hagen-Brenner

Attach a storage facility capable of holding enough food to support a maximum sized crew for however long it would take for the after effects of extinction event asteroid strike on the earth. Fill the storage facility and Park the combined craft in high orbit for obvious reasons. In the event of a significant sized asteroid being detected that is due to hit the earth, quickly get a young, fertile, mixed crew on board so that they can start the whole sorry mess all over again when it is safe to do so.

I imagine that crew selection would keep a whole army of politicians and diplomats occupied for as long as it takes for a suitable asteroid to happen our way. (One hopes they would have the common sense not to choose anyone called Adam or Eve considering the track record of the first two.)

On the other hand, we can hope that no such fate awaits us and just do whatever is the best from a cost point of view. Showing responsibility in that direction would put the space programme in good stead when it comes to justifying the cost of future publically funded science.

Mel Tisdale

Ultimately, as a species, our reason for living, working, and establishing property rights in space is survival.

Ioan Hill

Why not use parts of it to construct a transplanetary ship for travel to Mars. Alternatively could be used as an outpost station at Lagrange Point 2 onthe far side of the moon, though would need a nuclear power plant akin to Curiosity to maintain orbit with ion engines. Perhaps make it into the basis of an orbiting space ship year as seems the Russians want to build. Could even be a anchor point for a space elevator on the Moon?

Just ideas. Would be a shame to waste.


Uporbit that baby when it's game over time. We can use SOMETHING from it. Private space is the only viable future. The SLS (Stupidest Launch System) is just another job destroying scam for broken people running for office.


NASA should sell it to the highest bidder. Some commercial entity could make use of it and NASA could use the money to do something useful.

James Wilson

sell it to the highest international bidder, or like everyone says---boost it to a graveyard orbit where it can survive until someone needs metal in outer-space.

before they practice mining on asteroids far away, they can practice salvaging and repurposing materials from the iss for delivery to orbital satellites. at the very least they should be able to scavenge the solar array with almost no re-processing.


Don't deorbit the ISS. By 2020 it may well be something of interest for private space ventures - perhaps the first space hotel? Give private industry the chance to snap it up at a discount, thereby making money from it, rather than destroying it. At the very LEAST, if it must be deorbited for some incomprehensible reason, deorbit to the moon where it may be scavenged someday for raw materials, or set up as an "International Park" or monument to our earliest ventures off the planet.

David Xanatos

Space Hotel / Space tourism was my first thought, if the scientific value is really gone.

I'm sure that Google would pony up a few bucks for it :)


Anything but deorbiting it. That would be both a waste of money, resources ect and also would be a bunch of pollution. If you sent it to the moon you could study the effect it had on the moon and the effect it had on the ISS.

Ben O'Brien

Privitize the ISS & add some hotel modules & EV pods for guest use aside streamline lab & R&D modules more need Lunar Lander dock module & enhanced Command Module alone. Id be awesome. Have some corporations run ISS, let NASA do research with ESA. Oh those tourist hotel modules should house 20 persons. & need large Escape pods to Earth for reuse ( see movie Gravity in 3D).

Stephen Russell

Auction it. The sooner govt. stops doing what is best done by the private sector, the better. That goes for ALL govt. depts.

But do not assume govt. will do what is logical, e.g., financially wise. Why should it? It uses our money, not its own. Govt. will do what enhances its power (control).

We should remember that and stop funding the monster.

Don Duncan

Don't 'deorbit' nor 'park it'. It should continue in use even if limited use. The $4B annual cost is nothing compared to other government waste. The loss of a station that cost billions and took years to assemble would be a criminal destruction of a invaluable future resource to humanity. Sure, it isn't so "useful" now but we have no idea what value it could be for future programs. Private use is certainly an option for funding. I also like the idea of moving and parking it at one of the Lagrange points between the Earth and Moon(L5 might have a certain poetic value). Just about anything is preferrable to "deorbiting" it and letting it be destroyed. I felt the same about SkyLab which could have been a building block for an orbital station years ago. Mankind's only space station must be preserved at least until it is replaced by newer orbital stations.

History Nut

ISS was promoted as a sign of the end of the Cold War, effort in exploring Space together peacefully, for the benefit of all. Having it cut up to segments and/or burn in the atmosphere is also a symbolic reversal of what it stood for: a visible sign of failure for all to see.

For America it would be further set back. After Saturns were scrapped for NO REASONS, it was sold as a means for getting something "better", supposedly the Shuttles. Shuttles in turn were kept flying, without second generation or at least continual incremental evolution with new improved ones added to the fleet every once in a while, replacing the aged one (like Columbia) ...only because the ISS. Now, after scrapping Saturns and Shuttles better scrap also the ISS! Instead of finding innovative low-cost solution to have it up, to extend and upgrade ist mission - or at least surrendering it to worthy cause if someone else comes up with the innovation.

Thereafter you have America with space pants down - just military blackbirds busily flying in secret.

Yet there can be re purposing ideas for ISS galore, a sample follows:

Soft land it on the Moon. Use Dragon/Grasshopper (or for that matter already LEM) technology with controlled descend on rocket power. Use it to start a permanent Moon base.

Put it in Lunar orbit. and catapult or otherwise deliver lunar rock shielding material to it to protect against radiation that is much more of an issue for human survival there.

Make it part of a Moon exploration support infrastructure/establish the first Lunar orbit resort hotel. Start lunar resources utilization to cut the costs of supply of such a resort.

Put it in L5


You could do the same at/around Mars. (Nautilus-X- type projects)


Finally develop fuel-less stabilization in Earth Orbit, with solar electricity ion drives ...or solar electricity space tethers. Use VASIMR: "The VASIMR test on the ISS may lead to a capability of maintaining the ISS or a similar space station in a stable orbit at 1/20th of the approximately $210 million/year present estimated cost"

Keep using it as it is now with more cost-effective Falcon/Dragon resupply missions, or other providers.

Consider advanced robotic servicing/maintenance initiative to keep the cost of upkeep further down.

Make the robotic upkeep a K12 competition for youth around the world with the best team getting the first children trip up.

Deploy inflatable space hotel modules next to it/part of it.

Station some "worthy" homeless people in it, as sign of hope, inclusion and participation, next to the usual "fat cat" humanity.

All of the above would be/could be best done with a visionary private partnership able to mobilize popular support.

There are people around who realize how precarious the situation down on Earth is. A thriving ISS maintained on basis of popular worldwide volunteering efforts would lend a focus for efforts to establish other options/choices, similar and overlapping with Mars One or asteroid mining grassroots support. (There was already a race to keep Mir in orbit and start using it for space tourism, later redirected to ISS.)



It was already such a waste to put it in orbit, which cut alternatives for space development and set it decades back when much better visionary initiatives could not have taken off instead of it in the past. History of ISS is already history of waste and dashed hopes...stupidity and failure. Yet it WAS done after all. Now, at huge costs it IS and flies.Best Killing it now would just flush down the drain even the precious little the ISS contributed to space efforts.

To say now there are is no meaningful future for ISS is one more failure, one more affirmation of the current morass down under.

Deorbiting would be the most stupid idea of them all, entirely withing the scope of imagination of government bureaucrats, the same who are hard at work to create Orwellian future for every person in the globe. They all but succeeded. The prison will be all the tighter without a space option and even the most limited focus of hope.


When NASA starts earning their own money and paying their own way like the everyone in the real world - then they should be allowed to spend their profits anyway they choose. For that info I charge 2 cents!


The Orion project is obviously needed to get America back into the Space game but I doubt the value of a small spacecraft on journeys into deep space. The ISS would make an ideal inter-planetary vehicle with minimal modification and cost; it's already in space and it is large enough to accommodate a sizeable crew, something not possible with Orion. It could be feasible to re-commission one space shuttle and, fitted out for the purpose, docked with the ISS to provide propulsive power and a lifeboat for the crew should something unforseen occur which, given the inherent danger of space exploration, never far from anyone's mind.


Wally3178 Ever heard of SpaceX Dragon?


@Wally3178 What stroke my head - they could have left shuttles in orbit connected with the space station - they could have used landing capsule transported with the shuttle.

Kris Lee

For Petes sake,dont deorbit it. ( Even though Von Brauns wheel space station was the most logical design),sell it and use it for something.After the space shuttle destroyed our space program,(wanna take a stab at who that made rich?) we really don't have any capability(by chemical means to get stuff in orbit-besides spy satellites) we should already be there,like Arthur Clarke and other prescient folks seemed to imply,the Chinese are going to kick our butts in space,so if we are serious bring back the large petrol boosters with the Russian engines and get our official base on the moon and the space elevator-Kevin


Instead of sending two or three people to Mars in a "closet-sized capsule," why not strap some rockets onto the ISS and send the humans there in that far more commodious structure? As you pointed out, tons of valuable resources have been pushed up to ISS in significant quantities. Why not use them now instead of just some indefinite time in the future? There must be some way to shield at least part of the station, rooms where the Mars-nauts would spend most of their time.

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