International Assistant Editor
NASA recently announced plans to retire the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2030, marking the transition to commercial services after 20 years in space.
The news comes as the Biden administration committed to extending the ISS’s operations until 2030 to continue the current research being conducted and to facilitate the transition to private, commercial space travel. The extension will also consist of the advancements in space research and technology in order to send the first woman and person of color to the moon and the first people to Mars.
“This third decade is one of results, building on our successful global partnership to verify exploration and human research technologies to support deep space exploration, continue to return medical and environmental benefits to humanity, and lay the groundwork for a commercial future in low-Earth orbit,” said Robin Gatens, director of the ISS, in a news release. “We look forward to maximizing these returns from the space station through 2030 while planning for transition to commercial space destinations that will follow.”
According to the International Space Station Transition Report submitted to Congress, NASA has established a contract with Axiom Space, a U.S. based company, to attach commercial modules to a space station docking port, which will eventually become a low-Earth orbit (LEO) free-flying destination. NASA has also made agreements with three other U.S. companies including Blue Origin, Nanoracks LLC and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation to create commercial space stations; NASA hopes to have at least one commercial station be operational by the late 2020s.
“The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth orbit destinations, with NASA’s assistance,” said Phil McAlister, the Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Division at NASA, in the release. “We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space.”
The transition to commercial services would save NASA $1.3 billion and allow the agency to invest in other programs and explore deep space. NASA ultimately aims to “be one of many customers of commercial LEO destination services, purchasing only the goods and services the Agency needs,” according to the report.
The transition report also offers details about the ISS’s decommissioning in Jan. 2031. After considering various options, the ISS decided to deorbit the space station after natural orbital decay and re-entry planning. The ISS is expected to land in the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area around Point Nemo, the point in the ocean farthest from land. NASA is also predicting little environmental impact due to the degradation of the Space Station as it descends through Earth's atmosphere.
Over the past two decades, the ISS has been visited by people from 19 countries and has conducted major research in various areas of science including biology and physics. The ISS has also contributed to scientists’ understanding of Earth’s climate, microgravity, space phenomena and human diseases. While NASA does not intend to build a new space station, China has already launched the first module of its developing space station, which has plans for international research collaborations. Russia also plans to build its own space station by 2030.