Experts warn transition to private space stations won't happen anytime soon

As NASA launches 11th annual ISS Research and Development Conference

NASA will have to continue relying on international cooperation to keep the International Space Station (ISS) ticking over to 2030 and beyond, despite plans to replace the laboratory with private commercial space stations. 

Launched in 1998, the ISS is now in its third decade of operations. The aging space lab is showing signs of wear and tear – numerous cracks and leaks have led to loss of air pressure. Its future also looked uncertain earlier this year when Dmitry Rogozin, former head of Russia's space agency Roscosmos, threatened to withdraw assistance if the US and the EU did not lift sanctions over the Ukraine invasion.

NASA still likes the idea of a permanent space station, but not as an entirely government-operated affair.

"Looking forward, NASA's vision for low-Earth orbit is a sustained commercial space marketplace where NASA is one of many customers," the space agency said in its Benefits for Humanity ISS report [PDF]. "The development of a healthy commercial supplier base for low-Earth orbit activities is critical to achieving that vision."

In line with that vision, NASA has awarded billions of dollars worth of contracts with private companies to build next-generation space stations, but none are set to launch any time soon. Members of NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned that the first potential ISS heir, a module for the space station that could later detach, may not be ready until 2024 at the earliest.

Amy Donahue, professor of public policy at University of Connecticut and a member of the panel, warned: "There is very little margin for ensuring a continuous US presence in LEO is maintained given the planned ISS retirement in 2030," as reported by the journal SpaceNews. NASA has no choice then, but to keep relying on the ISS for now if it wants a continued human presence in low-Earth orbit. 

For now, we party

NASA is therefore celebrating the space station as it launches its annual International Space Station Research and Development Conference this week. Kirt Costello, chief scientist for the space station at NASA's Johnson Space Center, noted that over 3,300 experiments have been conducted over the last 20 years by rotating crews of astronauts. Costello believes now is the best time to reap benefits from results.

"The first decade of [the] station was the decade of construction; the second decade, moving from initial research to full utilization. We are now in the decade of results. During the past 20 years, the space station evolved from an outpost on the edge of space into a highly capable microgravity laboratory. Now results are compounding, new benefits are materializing, and the third decade is building on these last two decades of research," he wrote in the report. 

The ISS's unique environment allows scientists to perform experiments they can't on Earth – like studying the long-term health effects of living in space and physical and chemical processes in microgravity. Over the last two decades of operation, astronauts have grown edible plants, sequenced DNA, and tested various bits of communications equipment and robots to figure out how best to support human life as our species look toward exploring Mars and beyond. 

"The research done on the International Space Station advances scientific understanding of our planet, improves human health, develops cutting-edge technologies, and inspires and educates the leaders of tomorrow through its successful international partnerships; a truly exciting mission and part of a legacy that will be felt for decades to come," said Costello. 

NASA and US vice president Kamala Harris confirmed it was going to extend ISS operations from 2025 through to 2030, earlier this year. ®

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