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NASA prepares for International Space Station retirement


In October of 2000, a Soyuz Rocket carried the first expedition to the International Space Station and thus began the permanent residence aboard the laboratory. Humans have occupied a place in space ever since. NASA is now preparing for what’s next for human presence in space with plans to de-orbit the International Space Station in 2031.

‘We constantly have maintenance on the space station. We constantly send our astronauts out on spacewalks and they are doing just that,’ NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said. ‘Let’s say we didn’t have commercial stations that are ready to go. Technically, we could keep the space station going, but the idea was to fly it through 2030 and de-orbit it in 2031.’

When the International Space Station de-orbits, it will re-enter the earth’s atmosphere. Most of it will burn up, but some will survive the heat of re-entry.

‘It’s as big as a football stadium,’ Nelson said. ‘We need to be able to very precisely put them in the graveyard in the southern Pacific Ocean.’

It is the largest structure ever built in space. In the 1990s the Russians played a part in selecting where the ISS would orbit.

‘This far in advance, 5 or 6 years in advance, we are developing the de-orbit vehicle. You never can tell with the things that President Putin is up to. What is going to be our relationship? Could we continue to rely on our partners on the space station to help get it down? So we’re not taking any chances,’ Nelson said.

NASA is now partnering with commercial companies from both the U.S. and from allies around the world.

‘There are limitations to being on a space station that’s operated by multiple governments,’ said President of International and Space Stations at Voyager Space Jeffrey Manber.

Voyager and its international partners plan to launch the Starlab into a lower orbit.

The company says it is more efficient and cost-effective than what the U.S. and Russians agreed on in the 1990s.

‘When you’re commercial, you don’t have to be political like we had to be in inviting the Russians in 30 years ago,’ Manber said.

Like the ISS, Voyager’s Starlab will still be an international base. The company is partnering with companies from around the world.

‘We have the Europeans being represented by Airbus, the Japanese are represented by Mitsubishi Corporation. We’ve just announced that MDA of Canada does the robotic arm,’ Manber said. ‘And of course we have the support of NASA. So it’s very exciting the way we’ve put this together to be truly international.’

NASA believes the shift to commercial partnerships will also benefit national security.

‘You see the abrupt separation, a lot of the free world from Russia as a result of Russia invading Ukraine. Interestingly, the one part of the relationship between Russia and the United States that still works is the cooperation on not only running and maintaining and launching astronauts and cosmonauts together. That is a steady professional relationship without a hitch,’ Nelson said.

Other than the ISS, the only other structure housing astronauts in orbit is China’s space station. Beijing was banned from the International Space Station, largely because of U.S. concerns of the Chinese military’s control over its space program. Russia plans to launch its orbital service station in 2027. India also hopes to have its own station in the near future. The U.S. believes shifting away from government control in space, will help benefit life on Earth.

‘As you orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, you don’t see religious division on Earth. You don’t see racial division. You don’t see political division,’ Nelson said. ‘What you see is our home, the planet. You see that we are all citizens of planet Earth. That is a unifying factor.’

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