What does the future have in store for the International Space Station?

It has been orbiting the Earth for 23 years. But in 2024, the partnership between the different nations involved in the ISS, namely the US, Russia, Canada, Europe, and Japan, is set to come to an end. Does this mean the end of one of humanity’s greatest achievements? 

On paper, the different space agencies will support the International Space Station for another three years. In the meantime, more work is yet to be carried out on the facility, some of which could determine its future.

It’s not over yet

For the final three years of its operation, the ISS has some tricks up its sleeve. In fact, it will undergo its most important expansion since the end of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, whose large cargo bay allowed for sizeable projects. 

On the Russian side of the station, a new module will be installed, called MLM Nauka. The module, whose initial launch was planned for 2007, will be used for experiments, docking, storage, and also includes a rest and work area for the crew. It is the largest Russian spacecraft to join the ISS since the initial Zvezda Service Module. Its launch and installation should take place in the summer of 2021.

In April 2022, the ISS will also receive an upgrade to its power source, as new solar cells will be “unrolled”. Designed by NASA, the ISS Roll-Out Solar Array (iROSA) is a lightweight solar system that will take advantage of the existing sun tracking, power distribution, and channelization tediously brought by the Space Shuttle between 2000 and 2009. Much like a sail, the iROSA arrays will be unfolded on top of the old solar panels and partly cover them. While small enough to be carried in the SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft, they will provide a 34% upgrade in energy generation by working in tandem with the original system.

The last, and probably most forward-thinking upgrade, is the construction of an embryo of a private station attached to the ISS, called the Axiom Orbital Segment. The module is being developed by the Texas-based start-up, Axiom Space, created by Michael Suffredini, formerly NASA’s ISS program manager. NASA awarded the company a $140 million contract in February 2020 to develop a habitable module. 

Tourism to fund space exploration?

The integration of a private station follows NASA’s goal to gradually divest from the ISS by opening it up to commercial operations. Half of the station is funded by Russia while NASA finances 76.6% of the U.S. Orbital Segment of the station (as well as the Zarya module on the Russian side), with 12.8% taken by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, 8.3% by the European Space Agency, and 2.3% by the Canadian Space Agency. 

Currently, the operating costs of the station are between $3 billion and $4 billion every year, representing half of NASA’s human space budget. If the agency is to pursue other objectives such as the Moon or even Mars, it has to cut costs or find new sources of income. 

Axiom has already signed a contract with SpaceX to send three private astronauts to the international space station in the second half of 2021, at the price of $55 million per seat. At the end of the life of the ISS, the Axiom Orbital Segment should detach and continue its mission as an autonomous commercial station, continuing to act as a research laboratory and a space hotel. To ensure continuity for space companies, the new station will partly be built by Thales Alenia Space, already involved in the construction of half of the pressurized modules of the ISS.

But will the ISS really retire in 2024? So far, the die has not been cast. Technically, the station is cleared to operate until 2028, and beyond. “The study for 2028-2032 is expected to be launched this year,” Joel Montalbano, NASA’s ISS program manager, said in March 2021. 

New challengers

While technically feasible, the future of the ISS could face another, far more hazardous challenge: politics. The operation of the station is one of the last areas of cooperation between Russia and the United States in a time of increased tension between the two nations. Moscow has already announced that it will divest from the initiative in 2025, and shared its intention to create an independent station.

China may have its own station even earlier. The nation was excluded from the ISS program over concerns that it would use the opportunity to build on its own military programs. Even though attempts were made to cooperate in the following years, the Wolf Amendment in 2011 put a definitive end to any participation of Chinese companies in NASA programs.

Named Tiangong (‘Heavenly Palace’), the Chinese space station (CSS) will be a third of the size of the ISS. The first of three elements of the future Chinese space station was launched on April 21, 2021, and the first manned station will take place in June 2021. The CSS is planned to be fully operational by 2022.

India also wants its piece of the action. In 2019, the director of the Indian Space Research Organisation announced that the next stage of the country’s Indian Human Spaceflight Programme (after the development of a manned spacecraft called Gaganyaan) would be the construction of a low Earth orbit space station capable of housing a crew of three for up to 20 days. 

The next frontier

While the private sector takes over the low Earth orbit, next on the list for ISS’s space agencies lies further afield: the Moon. In 2017, NASA announced plans for the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, a manned station orbiting Earth’s natural satellite. Smaller than the ISS, it will not be permanently occupied and will only accommodate up to four astronauts.

Building a station 400 kilometers above our planet’s surface was a costly challenge, estimated at $120 billion. Constructing one 380,000 kilometers away looks set to require an even bigger budget. The United States may have to once again rely on its partners. In fact, Japan, Europe, and Canada have already announced their participation.

Russia, however, shunned the project and turned to China instead. In November 2017, the two countries signed a space cooperation agreement that includes lunar and deep space exploration. In March 2021, they announced their plan to build a lunar station, the  International Lunar Research Station (ILRS), on the surface of the Moon by 2031. 

Humanity’s quest to conquer space continues. 

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