The International Space Station could fall from the sky in 2031. What happens next?

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But now that the ISS is getting old, the cracks are appearing in its facade, space debris pound the exterior, and tensions between the United States and its main ISS partner, Russia, are at an all-time high. All of this makes mapping the future of low Earth orbit in a post-ISS world more urgent than ever.
The most recent roadmap for dismantling the ISS was released this week, and it lays out a plan to knock the space station out of orbit in January 2031, plunging it into a watery grave in a remote region of Europe. Pacific Ocean. It will mark the end of an era for a flagship program that places scientific research and international collaboration at its center.
And the space station was also one of the first business incubators testing the waters for potential commercial activity in space, serving as a platform for contracts awarded to a fledgling SpaceX – at a time when the company was on the verge of bankruptcy – and to dozens of other startups and companies. Many in private possesses spacecraft are in flight or under development to service the space station. And SpaceX now has the only commercial spacecraft in the world currently capable of ferrying astronauts back and forth from the ISS.

These projects were all part of NASA’s broader push to foster private investment in spaceflight, hoping that one day the private sector could take over all activity in low Earth orbit, or LEO, which is the sphere of outer space directly surrounding our home planet. which currently houses the ISS and the vast majority of our satellites.

But we don’t know exactly how much of their own money companies are willing to invest in such ventures. Spaceflight costs are falling, but space travel is still expensive and relatively dangerous. Industry experts widely agree that regardless of the fruit of these commercialization efforts, NASA and the US government must still maintain a presence in low Earth orbit for scientific and research reasons. also like Political reasons. It’s possible that whatever logos mark the exterior of future LEO space stations, taxpayers’ money will still be needed to keep them afloat.

But commercial companies are making big promises, saying they are eager to usher in this new era, which could include hotels in orbit, movie studios, laboratories and manufacturing facilities.

Here’s what the end of the ISS could mean for space companies and what that proposed future might look like.

Commercial space stations

The ISS already has a module – attached to the central spine of the ISS – owned by a private company. The BEAM module, which served primarily as a test to see how well the inflatable structure would fit in space, was installed in 2016 by Bigelow Aerospace. It has been hailed as a monument to commercial potential in outer space. But Bigelow went bankrupt in 2020 and ownership of the module was transferred to NASA this yearperhaps turning BEAM into a reminder of the difficulty of combining space travel and profit.
NASA Astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Kayla Barron through a window inside the Cupola, the
Overall, however, the commercial space industry is on a tear. Funding is flock to the area at record rates. And several companies have offered their ideas to bring new space stations to life. And NASA has already given seed funding to several.
The first is a project by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, dubbed Orbital Reef – which he will work on alongside Boeing and an up-and-coming company called Sierra Nevada – to assemble a space station nearly as large as the ISS that could be used to host science experiments, vacation getaways, and potentially even manufacturing in space.
A rendering of a space station project by Jeff Bezos
A separate project proposed by Houston-based Nanoracks, which already has significant infrastructure on the ISS, suggests set up a research base called StarLab that would be about one-third the size of the ISS and could accommodate up to four astronauts. According to businesswhich plans to work with Lockheed Martin and a company called Voyager Space on the project.
Then there’s a sprawling space station, offered by Northrop Grummanwhich could seat four to eight astronauts and could include an attached robotic arm to keep the spacecraft’s exterior in pristine condition without requiring astronauts to perform long, arduous spacewalks.
A Houston-based company called Axiom Space — the same company chartering flights to the ISS for paying customers this year — also intends to manufacture its own ISS module before eventually deploying a free-flying space station. It could house a research lab and even luxuries like a movie studio. (Tom Cruise apparently still plans to go to space, remember?)
All of these projects have NASA funding, and several more have been proposed by SpaceX, several space startups and even a entertainment company. But success is far from guaranteed, even for those with NASA support. Building a space station can be dangerous, time-consuming, and incredibly expensive.

But it’s also unclear whether NASA would drop all of these plans. This would leave the United States with no human presence in low Earth orbit after the ISS was grounded.

However, the level of help NASA can provide also depends on Congress. Over the past two years, NASA has requested $150 million in funding for its efforts to commercialize low Earth orbit and has received less than $20 million.

Transport

Transporting astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station has been a major source of business for SpaceX and several other companies, including Northrop Grumman, Boeing and a Colorado-based company called Sierra Nevada Company. (The latter two are still in the development phase of their spacecraft.)

But when the ISS no longer exists, these sectors of activity do not necessarily disappear.

Their spacecraft could all be used to service new, privately developed space stations if these future orbiting residences use universal adapters, allowing virtually any of these vehicles to hook up. Universal adapters are already in use on the ISS, a key benefit of NASA coordinating its commercial partnerships extensively while the ISS is still in service.

It should be noted that SpaceX has also already proven that it can find customers for its Crew Dragon spacecraft without involving the ISS at all. In September 2021, it carried a crew of four space tourists on a three-day ride in orbit.

Research and entertainment

The ISS has hosted crucial research for NASA, helping the agency better understand microgravity and how spaceflight affects the human body over long periods of time. Thousands of research experiments have also taken place within its walls.

The scrapping of the ISS and handing over to the private sector has raised fears that low Earth orbit will become a playground for the rich, with its orbital hotels and movie studios.

But if commercial space stations get up and running, the potential for research in space may remain as long as Congress is willing to fund it, industry experts say.

NASA could purchase space aboard a commercial lab and continue publicly funded research, a suggestion included in the official ISS transition plan released this week. Some of the foundations for such a possibility have already been laid.

NASA Astronaut and Expedition 66 Flight Engineer Kayla Barron checks the peppers growing inside the International Space Station's Advanced Plant Habitat before they are harvested for the Botany Experiment Plant Habitat-04, November 26, 2021.
The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, or CASIS, is an organization that oversees the ISS National Laboratory, which strives to bring commercial and academic research of all kinds to the ISS. companies and institutions. And it’s done – CASIS has organized research projects aboard the ISS for companies such as Target, Goodyear Tires and Big Pharma companies such as Merck and Eli Lilyas well as public bodies like the National Institutes of Health, according to Patrick O’Neill, director of marketing and communications for CASIS.
“We’ve had over 3,000 experiments that have taken place on the station, and there are now over 30 commercial facilities that are operational,” O’Neill said, referring to projects such as setting up a 3D printer at the space station for a company called RedWire.

The overarching goal is to raise awareness of the research potential in outer space and cultivate demand, and CASIS could continue to do so even after the ISS is disbanded.

“Instead of having an ISS National Lab [on the ISS]maybe you could move to a national lab in low Earth orbit or a national lab that encompasses some of these other commercial destinations,” O’Neill said.

In summary, the dismantling of the International Space Station will certainly bring a moment of upheaval for NASA and its commercial partners. But if – and this is a big if — their vision of converting low earth orbit into a business hub is successful, the research opportunities will remain.

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