International Space Station: Seven More Years

NASA's photo: 'Expedition 68 crew members participate in an evening conference with International Space Station mission controllers on the ground. From front to back, NASA astronaut Josh Cassada; JAXA astronaut Koichi Wakata; ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti; and NASA astronauts Frank Rubio, Nicole Mann, and Bob Hines.' (October 2022)
ISS Expedition 68 conference with mission controllers. (October 2022)

Nations and organizations running the International Space Station agreed to keep supporting it until 2030.

That’s what I’ll be talking about this week. Along with why the ISS won’t last forever, plans for either ditching it in the South Pacific or starting an orbiting salvage yard, commercial space stations and something my oldest daughter and I thought of.

The (Comparatively) International Space Station

NASA's emblem of the ISS (International Space Station). (2008) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Emblem of the International Space Station. (2008)

The International Space Station, ISS, isn’t the only one in Earth orbit.

Tiangong is China’s first long-term space station. They launched its first module in 2021. The third module was in place by the end of 2022. The last I heard, China’s station was a potentially international effort, with an all-China crew of three.

Meanwhile, the ISS has been in operation since November of 2001. Crew size started with three, and has been as low as two. At the moment, seven folks are living and working on the ISS. They’re from only three of the world’s 200-odd countries:

  • Sergey Prokopyev (Russia) (ISS Commander)
  • Andrey Fedyaev (Russia)
  • Dmitriy Petelin (Russia)
  • Francisco Rubio (United States)
  • Stephen Bowen (United States)
  • Sultan Al Neyadi (United Arab Emirates)
  • Warren Hoburg (United States)

Even so, that’s not doing too bad. The ISS really is international, run by five space agencies: CSA, ESA, JAXA, NASA and Roscosmos.

The agencies are from four nations — Canada, Japan, Russia and the United States — and one international organization: ESA, the European Space Agency. Which is not EUSPA, the European Union Agency for the Space Programme.

Putting it mildly, the situation’s complicated.

Cooperation, Complications, and Doing Science Anyway

NASA's photo: ESA astronaut Hans Schlegel, in the ISS Columbus module. (February 15, 2008) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Hans Schlegel, ESA, in the ISS Columbus module. (February 2008)

In a way, ISS-style cooperation began back in 1972, with the USA/USSR Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. But the ISS itself didn’t get started until 1988.

That’s when Japan, Russia and the United States of America, along with eleven member states of the European Space Agency signed off of the SSIGA (Space Station Intergovernmental Agreement).

There’s another layer of agreements between NASA and ESA, CSA, RKA and JAXA; and yet more beyond that. You get the idea. ISS cooperation has been anything but simple from the get-go.

Then Russia invaded Ukrain, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin hinted that the ISS would fall out of orbit without his help, and — like I said, complicated.

The good news is that the ISS is still in pretty good working order.

And that’s let scientists do research in fields like astrobiology, materials science and space weather that’s not possible on the ground. They’ve also been studying how life in microgravity has been affecting them.1

ISS Support Promised Through 2030

NASA photo: 'Tom Marshburn and Christopher Cassidy (left), both STS-127 Mission Specialists (MS) as they work to remove and replace (R and R) VCC and Integrated Equipment Assembly (IEA) batteries on the P6 Truss during STS-127 Extravehicular Activity 4 (EVA-4)'. (July 24, 2009)
Replacing batteries on the ISS P6 Truss. (July 2009)

Again, the ISS is in pretty good shape. For something that’s been orbiting for 24 years. And, like any other long-term installation, it needs routine maintenance.

But it wasn’t designed to last forever, and is starting to show its age. That’s why folks at NASA and elsewhere have been working out procedures for shutting down the ISS.

Having definite plans for making sure the ISS doesn’t crash onto someone’s roof is more than just being a good neighbor. It’s looking ahead and prudently deciding that getting sued — or worse — might be unpleasant.

The Outer Space Treaty (1967) says the United States and Russia are legally responsible for all modules they’ve launched. I have no idea how that will play out in real life.

At any rate, there have been plans in the works for how and when to bring the ISS down at least as early as 1999.

Back in 2012, for example, NASA proposed deorbiting the station in 2020. So I figure that having it still up and running in 2023 is good news.

And this is even better news:

Partners Extend International Space Station for Benefit of Humanity
Mark Garcia, NASA Space Station (April 27, 2023)

“The International Space Station partners have committed to extending the operations of this unique platform in low Earth orbit where, for more than 22 years, humans have lived and worked for the benefit of humanity, conducting cutting-edge science and research in microgravity. The United States, Japan, Canada, and the participating countries of ESA (European Space Agency) have confirmed they will support continued space station operations through 2030 and Russia has confirmed it will support continued station operations through 2028. NASA will continue to work with its partner agencies to ensure an uninterrupted presence in low Earth orbit, as well as a safe and orderly transition from the space station to commercial platforms in the future….”
[emphasis mine]

Getting that extension wasn’t easy.

The Space Frontier Act of 2018 was supposed to give the okay for a 2030 extension, but didn’t make it through the U.S. House of Representatives. But something called Leading Human Spaceflight did get approved. So did the CHIPS and Science Act, in 2022.2

There’s a joke about “do you want fish with your CHIPS” lurking in there, but never mind.

I’m also aware that politicos of assorted affiliations were involved, don’t see a point in deifying or demonizing them, am not looking forward to the looming election — and that’s another topic.

Best Structural Engineering of the 20th century

NASA's updated blowout diagram of the International Space Station. (January 3, 2023)
Blowout diagram of the ISS. (January 2023)

So, how come we aren’t keeping the ISS in orbit permanently?

Maybe it’s partly because of politics.

But I figure the main reasons are technology and cost.

Why can’t the ISS operate forever?
Max King, The Planetary Society (June 14, 2022)

“…Long-term installations like the ISS require regular maintenance. But just like the maintenance for a car or an old house, that maintenance continually grows more expensive.

“The systems the ISS needs to use for power, communication with Earth, and life support for the crew are all designed to be repairable in orbit by astronauts or robotic operations. While maintenance and upgrades to these systems happen all the time, the degradation of the station’s structure will limit its time in orbit.

“The structure of any spacecraft is exposed directly to the harsh environment of outer space can cause damage, but additionally — in the case of the ISS — stressful docking and undocking maneuvers from other spacecraft lead to wear….”

Orbiting Earth every 90 minutes, our planet’s magnetic field shields the ISS from some, but not all, radiation that fills the inner Solar System.

I figure a good reason for keeping the ISS up as long as we have is getting data on how the comparatively mild ‘climate’ of low Earth orbit affects materials.

Besides radiation, there’s heat and cold. During each 90 minute orbit, outside surfaces of the ISS go from -120 degrees Celsius (-184 degrees Fahrenheit) to 120 degrees Celsius (248 degrees Fahrenheit) and back again.

Here in central Minnesota, we don’t have it that bad. But our annual freeze-bake cycle does make us a land of four seasons: Autumn, Winter, Spring and Road Repair.

Part of our problem with potholes is water thawing and refreezing.

But materials exposed to hot-cold cycles get stressed when they expand and contract whether water seeps in or not. That’s why bridges and roads have expansion joints, and I’m drifting off-topic.

Folks designing the ISS knew about radiation and temperature extremes, but there’s only so much durability they could design into the system.

They planned for temperature fluctuations, designing with materials and coatings that’d reduce the stress. But two dozen years of UV radiation and atomic oxygen that’s around the ISS haven’t been kind to materials.3

Slow and Careful Docking at the ISS

SpaceX Demo-2 supply run to the ISS. (2020) via NASA TV and YouTube, used w/o permission.
SpaceX Crew Dragon docking at ISS. (2020)
SpaceX Demo-2 supply run to the ISS: inside the Dragon spacecraft. (2020) via NASA TV and YouTube, used w/o permission.
Inside the Crew Dragon. (2020)

Then there’s docking and undocking spacecraft at the ISS.

Pilots, including the AI that fly spacecraft like the SpaceX Dragon, are very gentle. Relative speed between the ISS and docking spacecraft are around a tenth of a foot per second, or 0.07 miles an hour.

That’s very slow. But a Dragon weighs several tons, so there’s a lot of energy involved.

Supply runs to the ISS come about every three months, so there will be something like 120 docking events and 120 undocking events between 2000 and 2030. Each one puts a little more strain on the ISS structures.

Engineers designed the ISS with adequate safety factors.

But they couldn’t design the docking systems and other structures to be as rugged as, say, the jet bridges folks walk through when boarding airliners.

Everything in orbit must be lifted off Earth’s surface and brought to orbital speed.

Since we’re only just now developing reusable launch vehicles, that’s expensive.4 So the ISS is built with equipment and structural components that are as lightweight as possible.

And that means they’re not as rugged as they could be.

Looking Ahead: Commercial Space Stations

NASA astronaut Robert Curbeam Jr. (U.S.A.), left; European Space Agency astronaut Christer Fuglesang (Sweden), right: helping assemble ISS parts like the truss segment. (December 12, 2006)
Attaching a new truss segment to the ISS. (December 12, 2006)

Bigelow Aerospace detail of image from a video, showing the Genesis 2 space station exterior. (image retrieved May 5, 2023)The International Space Station was designed and built with some of the best materials science and structural engineering know-how of the 20th century.

That knowledge was based on experience we’ve been accumulating since long before Imhotep got credit for designing Djoser’s step pyramid.

Central Minnesota’s environment isn’t like Egypt’s, and I’m drifting off-topic again.

The point is that we’ve been adapting existing design principles to new environments for a very long time. And now we’ve started learning how to build practical and durable structures on low Earth orbit and beyond.

Studies like the Materials International Space Station Experiment have been showing scientists what happens when assorted gadgets and materials get left outside. In orbit.

The idea’s basically simple. Researchers put samples into Passive Experiment Containers (PECs) — they look like high-tech briefcases — which folks on the ISS leave outside, photograph at intervals, and eventually take back in for more study.

The folks at Bigelow Aerospace had the same idea when they launched their Genesis II space station prototype. The last I heard, it’s still in orbit.

They’re not the only ones with commercial space stations in the works. Some, like Blue Origin/Sierra Space, have cool names like “Orbital Reef”. Others, like Northrup Grumman’s “Commercial Space Station”, not so much.

Whether the first ‘open for business’ space station is a (snug/cramped) luxury resort, a no-nonsense research lab or a specialty workshop: I’m quite sure there will be more.

Which apparently is another reason support for the ISS was extended to 2030. By then, transitioning to commercial space stations should be an option.5

And that brings me to an issue the ISS folks have been looking at: what does one do with an obsolete space station?

Point Nemo, the Spaceship Cemetery and “The Call of Cthulhu”

Gaianauta's map, showing great-circle distances from coastlines. Thin isolines at 250 kilometer intervals, thick isolines at 1,000 kilometer intervals. Mollweide projection. (2008) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Distances from coastlines, including islands. Thin lines=250 kilometers, thick lines=1,000 kilometers.

Earth has quite a few poles of inaccessibility, places that are the most distant from some border, often a coastline.

“Inaccessibility” may be in the eye of the beholder, though. My home, for example, is about an eight-hour drive east and north of the North American Pole of Inaccessibility. That’s a fair distance, here in the Upper Midwest, but it’s not all that far.

Wrenching myself back on-topic, the easiest disposal method for a defunct spacecraft is to just let it coast. We’ve been doing that a lot, which is why space junk, mainly in low Earth and geosynchronous Earth orbit, is a growing problem.

Given time, stuff in low Earth orbit will fall back down.

The air’s thin up there, a vacuum by many standards, but it’s there.

So everything, from loose nuts and bolts to the ISS, will eventually get slowed down enough to drop into layers of the atmosphere that aren’t near-vacuum. That’s generally defined as the Kármán line, 100 kilometers up.

Diving into the thermosphere’s lower reaches at hypersonic speed, debris heats up. A lot. Small stuff may vaporize before reaching the surface.

The ISS would break apart into a smaller chunks. Many of those would be massive enough to hit the ground. Or water.

And that could be a big problem: for anyone who happened to be under the debris, and indirectly for whoever got blamed. And/or was responsible. And that’s yet another topic.

International law hasn’t quite caught up with falling spacecraft.

But countries, including the United States and Russia, have developed the habit of deliberately crashing their used spacecraft near “Point Nemo”, the spot in the South Pacific that’s farthest from any land. It’s centered on 48°52.6’S 123°23.6’W, more or less.6

Concerns, Reasonable and Otherwise

Tentotwo's Location map of Pacific Ocean, Lambert azimuthal equal-area projection. Spacecraft Cemetery in Pacific Ocean (47°24'42''S by 177°22′45''E) marked by a red circle. Via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.The formal name for that spacecraft cemetery is “South Pacific Ocean(ic) Uninhabited Area.”

It’s uninhabited by humans and, thanks to being in the Southern Pacific Gyre, about as devoid of life as part of an ocean can be on this planet.

Even so, some folks have said that dropping space junk into that part of the ocean is bad for the environment.

Folks with environmental concerns are probably right, at least in the long run, but for now I think dropping used spacecraft into a spacecraft cemetery makes more sense than letting their orbits decay: and hoping for the best.

Other folks see a decommissioned ISS as an opportunity. More specifically, as material for a salvage yard —

“…The ISS not only contains a lot of valuable equipment but also useful resources, such as the metal in its truss and its solar panels, that has been taken to space at great expense. ‘It’s a sunk cost,’ says John Klein, a space policy expert at George Washington University in the US. ‘Let’s reuse what we can.’

“In late 2022, a group of companies including CisLunar Industries and Astroscale in the US presented an idea to the White House to do just that. That could include melting some of the metal in the truss of the station to be re-used to build new structures or vehicles in space, or even detaching entire modules and repurposing them for other space stations’ We definitely think there’s an opportunity here,’ says Gary Calnan, CisLunar’s chief executive. ‘We want to build a salvage yard in space.’…”
(“A fiery end? How the ISS will end its life in orbit“, Jonathan O’Callaghan, BBC Future (May 2, 2023))

I think outfits like CisLunar Industries and Astroscale have the right idea. I also think they’ll probably call their operations “recycling”, for marketing purposes.

Whether they’ll work out technical issues, and unsnarl the legal and bureaucratic tangle of extraterrestrial salvage rights? That’s another question.

BenduKiwi's visual representation of the elder god Cthulu (2006) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.My oldest daughter and I were discussing the spacecraft cemetery and works of H. P. Lovecraft the other day. Partly because Cthulhu’s home town is where we’re dumping used spacecraft.

She pointed out that dropping spaceships on Cthulhu’s roof might put the eldritch abomination in a bad mood.

That’s be a concern, if either of us saw “The Call of Cthulhu” as anything but fiction.

As it is, at this time of day there’s zero chance of folks traveling through the spacecraft cemetery seeing —

“…a great stone pillar sticking out of the sea, and in S. Latitude 47° 9′, W. Longitude 126° 43′ [and coming] upon a coast-line of mingled mud, ooze, and weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than the tangible substance of earth’s supreme terror—the nightmare corpse-city of R’lyeh, that was built in measureless aeons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu“, H. P. Lovecraft (1926))

— but it might make a good tale of cosmic horror.7 And that’s another topic.

More, mostly about space exploration:

1 Spaceflight international:

2 Agreements, legislation and a space station:

3 An allotrope and applied science:

4 Rocket science and new(ish) technologies:

5 The ISS: looking back and ahead:

6 Dealing with defunct spacecraft:

7 Wrapping it up for this week:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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