Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… following the release of a NASA Office of Audits report on the space agency’s management of the Internationa Space Station and its future replacement by a commercial successor, we’ll be looking at 1) the retirement plans NASA has outlined for the ISS, 2) how future space stations will be used to help propel NASA astronauts to the Moon, and even to Mars, and 3) the technical and financial challenges NASA faces over the next decade in advance of deorbiting the ISS.
Meanwhile, in video news, Cristina Gomez provides a weekly recap of several of our latest news stories over on our YouTube Channel, and for more from Cristina, also check out her very own Paradigm Shifts YouTube channel. As always, we will feature a complete listing of all our recent stories at the end of this week’s Intelligence Brief.
With all that out of the way, it’s time to take a look at what NASA projects for the future of the International Space Station, as well as its commercial successors in the years to come.
NASA Announces Retirement Plans for the International Space Station
The International Space Station (ISS) is to be replaced with at least one commercial successor, according to a recent announcement by NASA’s Office of Audits.
In a report dated November 30, the space agency’s auditing body stated that although operations onboard the ISS are scheduled to end in 2024, they will “likely” be extended until 2030, after which future space operations there will be passed on to private groups.
“Anticipating its retirement,” the audit report states, “NASA has committed to replacing the ISS with one or more commercially owned and operated space destinations.” The announcement follows a sum of $17 million that was recently authorized by Congress to help fund this transition, although NASA said the required budget for the job would be closer to $150 million.
The audit report also underscored the importance of having an orbital research facility, especially in terms of NASA’s future space endeavors.
“NASA’s plans for long-term deep space human exploration missions depend on continuous access to a research laboratory in low Earth orbit,” the report stated.
The Moon, Mars, and Beyond
As NASA lays the groundwork for its future space operations to be aided by commercial partners, the November 30 report emphasized that future Moon missions, as well as manned missions to Mars, will rely on having an orbital research station capable of facilitating a testing environment within a microgravity environment.
As detailed in the recent report, “the Artemis mission, aimed at returning humans to the Moon and ultimately landing astronauts on Mars, is not feasible without continued human health research and technology demonstrations being conducted on the ISS and its eventual replacement.”
“As long as humans intend to travel in space, NASA expects research and testing will be needed in the microgravity environment of low Earth orbit,” the report states.
In addition to sending the first person of color and female astronauts to the Moon, the Artemis missions are aimed at establishing both the Artemis Base Camp, a lunar surface station, as well as an orbital Gateway which “will allow our robots and astronauts to explore more and conduct more science than ever before,” according to the mission’s website.
In collaboration with its commercial partners, NASA’s objective is to move its focus from merely having commercial orbital laboratories like the current space station, and into the realm of creating a lasting presence on the lunar surface, which will provide pivotal data and experience as NASA plans for its eventual manned missions to Mars.
Timeline, and Future Challenges
Based on the wording of the November 30 audit report, NASA plans to have its commercial space station operational by as soon as 2028, allowing a two-year transitional period during which the ISS will be decommissioned.
If two years seems like a long time to decommission the ISS from operations, one must consider what the process will entail. In addition to ceasing operations on the ISS, NASA will have to transition its orbital operations to its new commercial facilities, followed by the most challenging feat of all: deorbiting the current space station, which the recent audit report describes as “a technically complex and costly operation requiring international participation and a critical decision on timing.”
NASA is also faced with challenges that stem from attempting to meet current timelines in terms of readiness for future Moon and Mars missions, which the ISS has been determined to be incapable of serving.
“In reviewing NASA’s planned research aboard the ISS, we found that research needed for long-duration missions to the Moon and Mars will not be complete by 2030,” the audit report states. “Under [NASA’s] current plans, both health risk mitigation and technology demonstrations will not be complete by 2030,” the report notes.
“Consequently, a substantial gap between the [ISS’s] retirement and the introduction of a new, commercial destination in low Earth orbit would force NASA to accept a higher level of health risk or delay start dates for long duration, deep space human exploration missions,” the report’s authors state.
While there are challenges the space agency will face over the next decade, several companies appear to have shown enthusiasm about the prospects of working with NASA to help build its future orbital destinations. Many industry leaders, including Lockheed Martin, in cooperation with Voyager Space and its subsidiary company, Nanoracks, have set current timelines for the construction of space stations by as soon as 2027. Other contenders include Axiom, whose present modules designed to attach to the current space station will serve a dual purpose as they detach prior to the ISS being decommissioned, and thereafter being used in a separate space station in the years ahead.
“While NASA is optimistic that the Station’s life can be extended to 2030, the structure cannot endure the long-term effects of the harsh space environment forever,” the report states in its conclusion. Citing everything from exposure to radiation, to the wear-and-tear the ISS receives during docking procedures, the inevitability of the space station’s decommission in the years ahead has become more clear now than ever before.
However, armed with this knowledge, NASA appears to be optimistic and prepared to move forward into the next phases of its orbital mission, as it seeks the aid of commercial partners that will improve the way astronauts are able to conduct science in near-Earth orbit, and eventually on the Moon and Mars as well.
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