Will NASA Abandon the ISS?

December 15, 2015 | Elizabeth Knowles

Photo from the ISS showing the exterior of the space station, the Canadarm, and Earth at night.
Photo credit: Scott Kelly/NASA

Orbiting the Moon looks more promising

The United States, Russia and 13 other countries have collaborated on the International Space Station (ISS) and had astronauts continuously living there for the past 15 years. However, Ars Technica reported that during a meeting of NASA’s advisory council earlier this month, NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, William Gerstenmaier, said “We’re going to get out of ISS as quickly as we can.”

Within the next decade, NASA is talking about pulling out of the ISS and moving towards a cislunar station instead. A cislunar station would orbit the Moon instead of Earth and would better prepare space crews for the realities of travelling to Mars in future years. Unfortunately, NASA’s budget cannot support two different space stations.

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Whether the ISS will be entirely dismantled or left at the mercy of commercial space flight is uncertain. Russian modules made their own way into space and thus have their own propulsion systems that would make it possible to move them and combine them in new ways to be part of a different station. However, the American modules do not — they depended on the space shuttle program to make their way into orbit and now have no way to be relocated. Ars Technica reports: “The message from NASA to the US industry is simple: we’re serious about the commercialization of low-Earth orbit, we have this marvelous facility available with unique capabilities, and we want you to use the heck out of it.”

NASA isn’t the only space agency having doubts about continuing their presence aboard the ISS for a long period of time. Just over a year ago it was being reported that Russia planned to leave the ISS by 2020, as opposed to 2024, which is when NASA still plans to do so.

Currently NASA depends strongly on the Russian Space Agency because both countries’ crews travel aboard Soyuz rockets. Just this morning (December 15), NASA’s Tim Kopra, the ESA (European Space Agency)’s Tim Peake and Russia’s Yuri Malenchenko successfully made the six-hour journey.

Humans haven’t left Earth’s orbit since Apollo 17 travelled to the Moon back in 1972. A station orbiting the moon would provide conditions closer to those that would be experienced on a trip to the red planet since it would be outside Earth’s protective geomagnetic field that blocks most of the dangerous high-energy radiation from the sun and would also be much further from Earth — days rather than hours.

According to Ars Technica, “We gave industry a 10-year horizon […] The chances of this are low, but it’s worth a try,” Gerstenmaier said referring to commercialization of low-Earth orbit. Whether or not they step up to the challenge, he believes that it is time to think about moving on from the ISS and moving forward towards the Moon and eventually towards Mars.

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Editor's note (December 15): The original article referred to Ars Technica as Astra Technica. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

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