The future of the International Space Station

The International Space Station is due for retirement from 2024 when no one has yet committed any funds for its continued use. This articles reviews what options might then be available after 2024 to replace the current functions.

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The International Space Station’s (ISS) (picture above from NASA) future beyond 2024 is uncertain as no one has committed funding beyond then. This leaves us wondering what will happen to the ISS after 2024 and what might the alternatives be if the space station is decommissioned. Will the station’s life get extended to 2028 or will it just stop being used? Other countries are also thinking about space stations, China has plans to development a permanent human presence in space and the US is developing plans for Deep Space Gateway to orbit the Moon as a stepping stone into to the lunar surface and to Mars. Then of course, there’s the commercial opportunities of a private company setting up a lab in space that would be open to anyone using it who could afford it, this might offer a low cost opportunity for many more countries to be involved.

Why do we need a space station

Despite the unclear funding arrangements for the future the ISS, there remains a need to have a laboratory in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) that can provide a platform to conduct experiments in a micro gravity environment. This is essential for understanding how humans can survive for long periods of time in space, but also for seeing how food might be produced and learning about the effects of living in the hostile radiation environment of space without the protections afforded by Earth’s atmosphere. The ISS also enables smaller countries, without the massive budgets of the US or Russia, to access space and advance their own space programmes. One the biggest indirect benefits is the amount of outreach that the ISS offers, it gives the opportunity for researchers worldwide to access a space based laboratory. There is also a massive educational benefit, an example of the kinds of things that the ISS enables was a few years ago when New Zealand school children were asked to submit ideas for an experiment to be run on the ISS. The ideas were submitted to JAXA who selected an experiment that mixed cooking oil and water. When it’s was run on the ISS the video was seen by the students who came up with the idea. This sort of educational value is huge and the fact that it involved multiple countries just reinforces the value of these sorts of opportunities, not to mention the lasting value and inspiration that students involved would have gained.

Deep Space Gateway

The fifteen member space agencies of International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) reported in their annual 2016 report that they will be working towards the development of a cislunar orbit station. This matches nicely with NASA’s Deep Space Gateway plans which are being refined and will no doubt become clearer when budgets are worked through. The heavy lift capability that will be afforded by the development of NASA’s SLS will enable lunar orbit to be in reach. The current budget assigned for the Orion programme, using the SLS and due for its first flight in 2019, would enable one long flight per year to lunar orbit. The plans for the Deep Space Gateway are significantly more modest than the ISS, so it will have nothing like the experimentation facilities that are currently available. In the report the ISECG also reiterated their support for operations in the lunar vicinity, landing on the lunar surface, exploring near asteroids and going to Mars. So the Deep Space Gateway is not a replacement for the ISS, in any way, but may be a useful hub for a laboratory built on the Moon.

Chinese plans

The Tiangong Space Station is the Chinese plan for a third generation module based station. The plan is to assemble the station in the 2020s around a core module that might be launched this year. It will essentially be the core capsule with two experiment capsules attached. The space station is supposed to have a life of ten years and in that time will offer a valuable resource for conduction research in a micro gravity environment. The below image is from here and is the Chinese depiction of their future space station:

Russian plans for a low earth orbit station

Russia is also mindful of the future demise of the ISS. Back in 2009 they had plans to repurpose their section of the ISS as the core of a future Russian station, those plans have since been shelved and a new build will be the core of any station they build. Not much has been said recently about Russian space station plans, but their experience with MIR in the 1980s and 1990s and with ISS since, would certainly help with any future ideas. In 2015 both NASA and Roscosmos announced they would work together on a replacement for the ISS after 2024, though no clarity was given on what that would actually mean.

European plans beyond the ISS

The ESA represents about 8% of funding for the ISS and after the demise of the station in 2024 they are setting their sights on a lofty goal operating from the moon. This will see ESA cooperating with NASA on the Deep Space Gateway. A couple of years ago there was some reporting in the media about ESA establishing a “town” on the lunar surface to replace ISS functions but these have not been expanded since. They do have plans for a joint lander mission with Russia to look for water and other resources on the lunar surface in 2022.

Privately funded space station

Bigelow Aerospace have a design which they say on their website could be used as a standalone station and the BEAM module they have running on the ISS shows the experience they are gaining. They could easily end up being a commercial provider for a LEO lab.

Axiom announced that it intends to build a privately funded space station towards the end of the life of the ISS. They plan to attach their modules to the ISS as their station is being built before finally separating it. The company is made up of staff with a sizeable amount of experience on the ISS and they ultimately want to privatise the low earth orbit market. There’s a good chance they could make this work, as they plan to have a cost effective station that is significantly less expensive than the current operating costs of the ISS. The picture below is from Axiom’s website and shows their station attached to the ISS.

The LEO environment is certainly not going to be closed after the ISS is decommissioned and even if it isn’t extended for a suggested 4 years until 2028, there seems to be some very interesting opportunities emerging, especially in the commercial space sector. By the end of the 2020s there could well be micro gravity and low gravity experiments running on labs on a Chinese Space Station, a commercial station and on the lunar surface. Watch this space, it’s going to get competitive.