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ISS
The International Space Station as protographed by the STS-116 crew prior to docking with the station last week. (credit: NASA)

The long-term future of the ISS

After the long post-Columbia hiatus, construction of the International Space Station has restarted and seems to be going well. Next year will be the most difficult one for NASA and its partners so far. With up to five shuttle missions and the first flight of Europe’s ATV, as well as the usual Soyuz and Progress operations, there’s going to be a lot of traffic up there. The gamble that the partners can satisfactorily complete the station before the shuttle retires in September 2010 may pay off.

NASA may not be able to have its new Orion spacecraft ready to carry astronauts to and from the ISS before 2014 or even later. Funding for the project may be cut due to the plans by the new Democratic majority in Congress to pass, in effect, a year-long continuing resolution to fund NASA and other federal agencies in 2007, without the extra “emergency” funding that Senators Barbara Milkulski and Kay Bailey Hutchison had been asking for. The future US role in the station program may be in danger of slipping into irrelevancy.

Thanks to last year’s Congressional mandate that turned the ISS from a space station into a “national laboratory”, like Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore, it is doubtful that NASA will abandon it after 2016.

Even if NASA has the Orion and its Ares 1 launch vehicle ready before 2014, the agency is not now planning to operate the ISS past 2016. This does not mean they intend to abandon it: the 2016 date was chosen arbitrarily for the purposes of determining life-cycle costs. The spaceflight operations directorate within NASA has been instructed to do nothing to preclude US ISS activities. The agency has not come up with a policy and probably will not do so until the assembly sequence is much further along.

They know that essential elements of the station, such as the batteries and the seals that connect the modules, will have to be replaced and/or recertified. Since the US has no experience with on-orbit refurbishment it will be sailing uncharted waters. The Russians, who do have a limited track record in this area thanks to Mir, may be able to help, but NASA procedures and safety standards are so different that this assistance may be of only modest value.

Thanks to last year’s Congressional mandate that turned the ISS from a space station into a “national laboratory”, like Los Alamos or Lawrence Livermore, it is doubtful that NASA will abandon it after 2016. The US might have been willing to give up control of an orbital facility, but politicians will have a hard time giving up a “national” lab. The international partners certainly have their own ideas about onboard activities, but if the Orion capsule and whatever systems emerge from the Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) contracts are operational in 2016, the US will still have the most clout.

The Orion’s ability to carry as many as six crewmembers and passengers to and from the ISS is the key. If the Russians are still using their Soyuz vehicles that can only transport three cosmonauts at a time, most visitors to the station will have to go via Florida. The limited cargo capability of the Orion will give the US an alternative way to support its activities if the COTS-derived systems are forced off-line by an accident or for any other reason. NASA will also want to fly the Orion as much as possible in order to gain as much in-orbit experience as possible. The more time the CEV spends in space, the better the agency and its contractors will understand its systems before the lunar missions begin.

The alternatives to Orion, such as the SpaceX Dragon capsule or a manned version of the Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) K-1, will probably not be ready before 2012. These things always take longer than planned. One interesting possibility that has been mentioned is a combination of a man-rated Atlas 5 (for which Robert Bigelow is financing the initial feasibility studies) with the Dragon vehicle. This combination could provide human access to both the ISS and to a future Bigelow space hotel.

Once the ISS is completed, and when NASA and its partners decide how they want to use it after 2016, it will be time to examine a possible expansion of the pressurized volume available inside the facility. This could set the stage for the first truly competitive bidding process for a habitable space structure. On one side could be Bigelow Aerospace with one of their inflatables. After all, NASA originally developed the technology specifically for a large habitation module for the ISS crew. On the other side would be Alcatel Alenia Space with a more traditional aluminum “bidoni”, as they call them in Turin.

With the right level of maintenance, refurbishment, and rebuilding, there is no reason why the ISS cannot last for another thirty or forty years. What will be impossible is for NASA to keep spending money on the station like it has in the past.

Each company would have to assemble an international team. Bigelow and Alenia would have to try and convince the ISS partnership that they could build and deliver their system on time and within budget. This would begin to move the whole ISS project away from what critics have scornfully called the “design bureau” approach and towards normal government contracting procedures. This competition would force the human spaceflight side of the space industry to become more like the commercial and military side of the industry. This will inevitably push corporations and governments to seriously try to reduce their costs while maintaining safety and quality. That’s a big challenge, but one that governments and industry will have to face one day, no matter what happens to the ISS or to the Vision for Space Exploration.

With the right level of maintenance, refurbishment, and rebuilding, there is no reason why the ISS cannot last for another thirty or forty years. In that time it will not only need to be manned and supplied, but it will probably need new solar arrays and other new elements, such as a new cooling system or up-to-date computers. Keeping it going without the shuttle will be difficult, but not impossible.

What will be impossible is for NASA to keep spending money on the station like it has in the past. What will probably happen is that Congress and NASA will agree on a rough level of annual spending on the project, perhaps not more than two billion a year in 2006 dollars, and the agency will try and figure out what they can do within the limits of that funding. To maximize these dollars, the private sector “NewSpace” industry will have to be fully brought on board.

The ISS began as a Cold War era project, survived as a foreign policy gesture towards Russia, and is often said to be a program with no real goals or justification. Yet, since the days of Apollo or even before, advocates for space exploration and industrialization and settlement have recognized that a space station is a requirement for any sort of human expansion into the solar system. While the next generation of lunar explorers will not use the station as a starting point, the ISS will play an essential role in developing the technology and expertise needed to support those voyages. Beyond that, it will be one place in Earth orbit where humans, in reasonable safety, can prepare themselves for the task ahead.


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