Goodbye, International Space Station?

On March 23, 2001, the Russian Mir space station fell after 15 years of operation, and its wreckage fell in the South Pacific; on March 4, 2011, after the launch of the US Earth observation satellite Glory, the launch vehicle failed and crashed into the South Pacific. ; On April 2, 2018, China’s Tiangong-1 space laboratory fell into the South Pacific; on December 27, 2021, the launch test of the Russian Angara-A5 heavy rocket failed, and the rocket debris fell into the South Pacific.

If you look more closely, you will find that the landing points of these aircraft are very uniform, all at 48°52.6′ south latitude and 123°23.6′ west longitude in the central South Pacific, which is about 2,685 kilometers away from any land. Such a special place naturally has its own name – the ocean is hard to reach, also known as “Nemo’s Point” (Latin for “no one”).

Nemo Point, the point on Earth’s surface that is furthest from land.

Point Nemo is recognized as a “spacecraft graveyard”. Since 1971, nearly 300 space debris has been received. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced on December 31, 2021 that the International Space Station (ISS) will be officially decommissioned in 2031, after which the wreckage will be thrown here.

life extension
The all-powerful ISS is getting old. On November 2, 2000, NASA astronaut William Schaeffer and two Russian astronauts, Sergei Konstantinovich Krikalev and Yuri Gidzinko, aboard the “Soyuz TM-” 31″ The spacecraft arrived at the ISS and became the first astronauts. Here, they can watch the sun rise or set every 45 minutes.

Over the next 20 years, more than 200 astronauts from 19 countries have enjoyed the wonders, and used this stable microgravity environment stolen from space to conduct about 3,000 scientific researches, involving biology, physics, biomedicine, materials, earth and space. Science and many other fields: climate sensors verify climate models and provide information on changes in the Earth’s climate environment; space science instruments deepen human understanding of phenomena such as neutron stars and dark matter; ISS staff volunteer to be test subjects to record human life in a microgravity environment and work, etc.

Another special significance of the ISS lies in the in-depth cooperation between the United States and Russia in the space field. ISS is led by NASA and Roscosmos, and is joined by European, Japanese, Canadian, and Brazilian space agencies. The R&D team includes 25 space agencies around the world.

This is currently the largest man-made object in space, carrying more than 10 humans at the same time. However, with the accumulation of time, the ISS began to have frequent loopholes, ranging from the cooling system and oxygen system failure, to the loss of experimental subjects, broken windows, and toilet “strikes”.

The ISS was originally designed to have a short lifespan of 15 years. In 2015, the U.S. and Russian aerospace departments signed an agreement to extend the life of the ISS from 2020 to 2024. In July 2020, NASA awarded Boeing a $916 million contract to support ISS life extension work until September 2024. Under the contract, Boeing provides engineering support services, resources and personnel for ISS activities and is responsible for managing the systems.

Seeing that the day of “retirement” is approaching, NASA issued a statement on December 31, 2021, announcing that the US government will support the operation of the International Space Station for another 6 years, and the retirement time will be extended to 2031. At the same time, it hopes to cooperate with Russia, Canada, Japan and Europe. Wait for international partners to continue working together until the end of the decade.

On February 1, NASA released the International Space Station Transition Report, which is regarded as the specific decommissioning plan for the ISS. However, compared with what was expected 6 years ago, there are many doubts about the extension of ISS’s retirement this time.

According to the “International Space Station Transition Report”, the technical life of the International Space Station is limited by the main structure, namely modules, radiators and trusses. Other systems such as power, environmental control and life support and communications can all be repaired or repaired in orbit. replace. According to a public interview with Vladimir Solovyov, the engineer in charge of the Russian part of the ISS, at least 80% of the infrastructure systems on the Russian part of the ISS have expired. The cargo compartment “Zalya” (one of the oldest modules of the ISS) 1) There are many small cracks on the surface, “with the passage of time, the cracks may expand.”

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov also publicly stated that the ISS is seriously aging, and because the space station operation contract expires in 2024, Russia may withdraw from the project after 2025. However, Rogozin, general manager of Roscosmos, said that the overdue service of individual sections of the ISS is serious, but it is too early to end the project, and the specific plan after 2024 can be finalized after discussions with other partners. However, the “other partners” in his mouth have not reached a consensus on what to do with the ISS after 2024, and until 2022.

In addition to crashing or paying to maintain the ISS in low-Earth orbit, it has also been proposed that propulsion equipment can be used to push the ISS to outer space for reuse. From a dynamic point of view, this may not be impossible, but considering that the ISS’s radiation protection system is developed based on an orbit 400 kilometers above the ground, once the protective power of the thin atmosphere of thousands of kilometers in low-Earth orbit against cosmic rays is lost, the radiation intensity in the cabin will be high. There is no guarantee of astronaut survival. Considering the investment in reshaping the radiation protection system, the feasibility of the plan is almost zero.

Based on the above reasons, some people believe that the ISS is postponed until 2031 to retire, which is most likely to compete with China’s Tiangong Space Station. The Tiangong space station is expected to be completed around 2022, with a design life of 2032. Once the ISS crashes, it will be the only human space station. A one-year gap will at least make the current ISS partners hesitate when they turn around.

From hegemony to cooperation
Before the creation of space vehicles, people experienced the feeling of taking a spaceship to the sky in the 1911 paper. The process of manned spacecraft from launch to orbit is presented in detail, so people can see the magical effects of overweight and weightlessness on people, the strange performance of objects in weightlessness, and the fascinating views of the earth and sky at different heights.

The author of the paper, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, later became the founder of modern astronautics. He was the first to demonstrate the possibility of using rockets for interstellar transportation, artificial earth satellites and low-Earth orbit stations.

“The earth is the cradle of mankind, but it is impossible for people to live in the cradle forever.” For hundreds of years, the famous saying of the father of aerospace has continued to inspire researchers in the field of aerospace.

More than 60 years later, the former Soviet Union launched the world’s first space station, “Salute 1”, and space exploration has entered a new journey. As of April 11, 1982, the former Soviet Union launched a total of 7 Salyut space stations. Huge aerospace laboratory.

The success of the Salyut space station helped the Soviet Union to expand its political prestige, and also pushed the US-Soviet space hegemony to a fever pitch.

The father of the Apollo program, Warner von Brown, proposed the concept of a wheel-shaped space station in 1956, thinking that this configuration could artificially create gravity. Two years after the successful launch of Salyut 1, the United States used the remaining materials of the Apollo program to develop the military background “Sky Lab” (Sky Lab). But due to a fuel docking error, Sky Lab fell into the atmosphere ahead of schedule on July 11, 1979.

On January 25, 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan directed NASA to develop a “permanently manned space station to be built within ten years.” NASA is determined to establish a space station consisting of three independent orbiting platforms for microgravity research, Earth and celestial observations. This is the Liberty space station. In order to control costs, the Liberty space station design has undergone several major revisions.

The former Soviet Union began building the Mir space station in 1986. This is the first truly modular space station for mankind. As the number of modules increases, the research and habitation capabilities will continue to improve, but the fate is largely independent of technological evolution. After the collapse of the former Soviet Union a few years later, the United States and Russia began to drastically cut their aerospace budgets.

In order to maintain the development of the aerospace field, and driven by political and economic factors, the space field has a tendency to shift from competition to cooperation.

In 1993, the United States had a big discussion about whether to let Russia join the space station. “In the post-Cold War era, space policy is foreign policy,” said Sagdiv, the former director of the Institute of Space Studies of the former Soviet Academy of Sciences who moved to the United States. He cited reasons why the United States should allow Russia to join the space station, including helping Russia maintain its national “space power” “The image is beneficial to win over Russian leaders, push Russian scientists beyond domestic work, and provide impetus for Russia to reduce the use of nuclear weapons. This is largely the reason why the U.S. government promotes aviation cooperation.

This discussion gradually deepened, and in this context, the ISS project was officially born.

On January 29, 1998, representatives of the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and the participating countries of the European Space Agency signed the latest intergovernmental agreement on space station cooperation. According to the agreement, U.S.-Russian cooperation will be carried out in stages: the first step will be the landing of U.S. aerospace planes on the Mir space station that was operating in Russia at the time, followed by the joint construction of the space station by the United States and Russia, and finally the participation of U.S. allies in the construction of the international space station. space station.

Ten months after the agreement was signed, Russia launched the first module “Dawn” module in the orbit of the International Space Station. Three weeks later, the first U.S. segment, Unity, arrived via the Endeavour spacecraft, and ISS construction began. It took another 12 years for the entire ISS to be assembled.

The main structure of the ISS is integrated by the Soviet Union’s “Peace 2” and the US Space Station Liberty, which respectively extend to the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) operated by Russia and the United States Orbital Segment (USOS) operated by the United States and other countries. It circles the earth 15.5 times a day and consists of 17 cabins, 10 trusses, 3 external loading platforms and 3 maintenance systems. There are two bathrooms, fitness facilities and a 360-degree external window inside. It is the largest satellite in low earth orbit. Compared to astronauts, the living space of the ISS is equivalent to the cabin of a Boeing 747 jumbo plane.

What is in heaven is also decided on earth
Under the common interests of the United States and Russia, the construction of the ISS is completed, and its fate is also affected by the relationship between the two countries. There are also many differences between the two countries on how to treat or deal with the ISS in the next decade. Russia has always been critical of the ISS. Rogozin has repeatedly criticized the United States for being “overly self-centered.” Shortly after NASA awarded Boeing with the lucrative contract in 2020, he said: “The United States is deviating from the ISS principle of mutual support. They see this as NATO, not an international project – with the United States there, everyone else has to help and pay.”

Russia hopes to focus on the construction of its own projects, intends to expand the on-orbit capability of the Russian module before the ISS is retired, and use the Proton and Soyuz carrier rockets to launch the Science multi-functional experimental module, the Mooring node module and the scientific power module, and consider waiting for the ISS to be retired. Later, the Russian independent space station ROSS was established based on part of the in-orbit module.

On September 2, 2021, Rogozin publicly stated that the ROSS deployment plan will be launched within 5 to 6 years, and the independent construction of the space station plan will be launched in 2025, and the first core module will be launched, which is expected to run around 2030. Of course Russia is also prepared. At the Global Space Exploration Conference held on June 15 of the same year, Rogozin said that Russia may also send astronauts to the Chinese space station in the future, and China and Russia are discussing the matter.

On January 13, TASS reported that Roscosmos and NASA were in talks to extend ISS operations until 2030. Rogozin said that the two sides have reached an agreement on the engineering support of the Zarya module, which will be continued by Russia after 2024.

America’s Last Thoughts on ISS – Help NASA Get Back Some Blood
The United States has promoted the commercialization of the ISS for many years, hoping that it will be completely run by private companies. “We want to maximize space station returns by 2030 while transitioning to commercial space destinations,” Robin Gattens, director of the ISS at NASA Headquarters, said on Jan. 31.

In addition to aging, another issue with the ISS is funding, according to NASA. Under the premise of extending the life of the space station, billions of dollars need to be frozen every year to keep the space station running. This is undoubtedly a huge expenditure. Once commercialized, NASA will be one of the commercial space station customers, at least spreading the cost of maintaining the space station.

In order to promote the commercialization of the ISS, NASA has been preparing for a long time. As early as the late 1990s, the ISS business development plan was formulated, and even a price list was listed, but there has been no substantial progress. In June 2019, NASA once again launched the ISS commercialization plan, including policy adjustments, reserving docking ports for commercial modules, and also issued a minimum long-term demand forecast for low-Earth orbit services to encourage private companies to invest.

On April 29 last year, NASA said that related companies are very interested in sending private visitors to the ISS, and the demand is so high that it even exceeds the capacity of the ISS. Using this as an excuse, NASA adjusted its pricing strategy for future private astronaut missions to the ISS, saying the new prices reflect the actual costs of supporting those missions and “reflect full compensation for the value of resources beyond the station’s baseline capabilities.” Probably similar to the abolition of official subsidies.

According to the original price policy in June 2019, ISS charges US$11,250 per person per day for life insurance and toilets, and US$22,500 per person per day for other crew supplies such as food and air. There are also some smaller fee items such as storage, electricity and data usage.

According to the new price policy, in addition to the cost of $88,000 to $164,000 per person per day, private astronauts will also pay $5.2 million for space station crew hours per mission and $4.8 million for mission integration and basic services.

However, the specific price is still negotiable. “Given the complexity and different plans of private astronaut missions, the value of compensation for the mission will also vary.”

As for the commercial operation rights of the ISS, NASA once selected two companies, Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace. Bigelow plans to use the resources of the International Space Station to carry out space tourism projects, while Axiom Space tries to use the gravity-free, ultra-clean environment of the International Space Station to produce special materials.

Before the epidemic, Bigelow’s progress was far ahead. The BEAM module launched in 2016 has been connected to the actual use of the International Space Station, but the epidemic has hit Bigelow hard. It declared bankruptcy in the first half of 2020, and the ownership of the module was also transferred to NASA.

The Axiom project is progressing steadily, signing a separate agreement with NASA, and the agreement will begin at the end of 2024, Axiom will launch multiple modules to the ISS. These modules will eventually separate from the ISS to form civilian-operated “free-flying vehicles” in orbit. Axiom received approval for its maiden flight to the ISS on February 2, and could launch into space on March 30. The mission will carry three paying customers, each reportedly paying $55 million.

In December 2021, NASA awarded another $415 million to three companies (Blue Origin, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman) to encourage them to build commercial space stations in Earth orbit.

According to the International Space Station Transition Report, NASA’s agreement with Blue Origin, Nanoracks, Northrop Grumman, and Axiom is the first of two phases of a transition program to stimulate the commercialization of low-Earth orbit destinations (CLD) in the 1930s. “The first phase is expected to last until 2025,” the report noted. “As for the second phase of the ISS’s transition to CLD, NASA intends to provide NASA crew members and other potential entrants with certification to use CLD at a later date and then purchase services from destination providers for crew use as needed.” This is to replicate NASA’s current proposal for private astronaut transportation to and from the ISS.

A big reason for the CLD program is the success of SpaceX. SpaceX has the only commercial space vehicle currently capable of transporting astronauts to and from the ISS, freeing NASA from the dilemma of relying on Russia to send astronauts to the ISS after it terminated the spacecraft program in 2011. NASA and SpaceX have been working together for several years.

In 2014, NASA had awarded two multi-billion-dollar contracts, one to veteran airline Boeing and the other to SpaceX. Since May 2020, SpaceX has completed multiple crewed round-trip orbital missions via the Falcon9 rocket and CrewDragon capsule. As for the Boeing manned spacecraft CST-100Starliner, it still needs to conduct an unmanned test flight before actually carrying astronauts.

How much money will the transition from the International Space Station to a commercial outpost really save NASA?

According to the report, “by 2031, savings are expected to be around $1.3 billion; by 2033 this will increase to $1.8 billion”. These funds will eventually go to NASA’s deep space exploration program. Some argue that no matter how successful the commercialization efforts end up being, NASA must maintain a presence in low-Earth orbit. After all, according to public data, the ISS in the United States costs more than $100 billion, and this money “can all come from taxpayers.”