NASA pushes back timing of ISS deorbit vehicle contract

Proposals now due in 2024 for a launch 5 years later

NASA has tweaked the contract and shuffled the dates for its procurement notice covering a vehicle to deorbit the International Space Station (ISS.)

While the agency should probably have carefully considered and planned how disposal would happen more than a quarter of a century ago, when construction began, NASA only put out a request for proposals for a deorbit vehicle in September 2023.

Months earlier in March, Kathy Lueders, then NASA's human spaceflight chief – now Starbase general manager for SpaceX – reckoned the cost of dropping the ISS out of orbit and dispersing whatever survives re-entry over the Earth's oceans would come to just shy of $1 billion. NASA officials put in a budget request of $180 million to start building a module to deorbit the complex.

The September 2023 procurement notice requested proposals from industry by November 17, 2023. This was extended over the subsequent weeks and, as of the latest change, now stands at February 12, 2024. The desired and required delivery and launch dates have also changed. The hoped for delivery date is now August 1, 2028, with launch to occur December 1, 2028. Required delivery is May 1, 2029, with launch on September 1, 2029.

NASA also quietly updated its original blog and noted that it now expects to make a contract award in late May or early June 2024.

The agency has also added the option for both the development and production of the vehicle under a cost-plus contract. While the agency has not given a reason for the change, it said in its cover letter: "This revision maximizes value to the government by allowing offerors flexibility in proposing contract types."

The question of what to do with the ISS at the end of its life is a vexing one. One plan had called for using Roscosmos Progress spacecraft to nudge the complex out of orbit in a controlled fashion. Doubtless to avoid needling its partners too much, NASA said that current plans "indicate a new spacecraft solution would provide more robust capabilities for responsible deorbit."

However, the new dates align nicely with when the ISS is currently expected to reach the end of its life. Russia has committed to keep contributing through to at least 2028, and the other international space agencies, including ESA and NASA, hope to continue through 2030.

As such, the arrival of the US Deorbit Vehicle (USDV) at the end of 2029 will be just in the nick of time. ®

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