ORLANDO, Fla. – Pushing back the International Space Station’s retirement date is likely, but it won’t be cheap and more efforts need to be put into planning what comes next, according to a new report from NASA’s Office of the Inspector General.
The report says pushing the retirement date for the ISS from 2024 to 2030 is not only likely, it’s necessary for the commercial space industry and continuing NASA’s plan for human deep space exploration.
Operating the ISS costs $3 billion per year. As the station gets older, maintenance costs are increasing. Upgrades and system maintenance rose 35% from fiscal year 2016 through 2020.
Moreover, there are concerns about cracks and leaks recently discovered in the tunnel that connects the Service Module to one of the station’s docking ports.
“Notably, based on the models NASA used to assess the structure, the cracks should not have occurred, suggesting the possibility of an earlier-than-projected obsolescence for at least one element of the station,” the report said.
The OIG report called for NASA to ensure that the risks from the cracks are found and mitigated before agreeing to extend the ISS’s life. NASA management partially agreed with the recommendation because it would not support waiting to push back the ISS’ retirement.
The report says having a low Earth-orbit station is important for deep space exploration. Microgravity experiments being conducted on the ISS are crucial to understanding the human health risks and technological needs for those missions. Even the current 2030 retirement date is not long enough to finish the research needed for the moon and Mars missions, the NASA report found.
“Consequently, a substantial gap between the station’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 said.
NASA is currently planning to have at least one commercial low Earth-orbit station operational by 2028, which would allow a two-year overlap before the 2030 ISS retirement date.
Getting that commercial space station up and running by 2028 will not be easy. The report identified challenges that included “limited market demand, inadequate funding, unreliable cost estimates, and still-evolving requirements.”
However, the lack of a low Earth-orbit destination could also cause a cascade effect that could render serious damage to the space industry.
“Without a destination, the nascent low Earth-orbit commercial space economy would likely collapse, causing cascading impacts to commercial space transportation capabilities, in-space manufacturing, and microgravity research,” the report said.
About 49 groups have expressed interest in creating low Earth-orbit facilities. In 2020, NASA awarded Axiom Space a contract to create a habitable commercial module for the ISS that would eventually connect to a special platform and detach from the ISS and become a free-flying destination.
In October, Blue Origin and Sierra Space announced a partnership to create an “orbital reef,” a kind of “mixed-use business park” in space that is meant to open up markets in research, investment and travel.
Extending the retirement date for the ISS is not a done deal. The plan has support in the U.S. Senate, but the U.S. House would still need to act.
That includes more funding not just for the ISS but for the next step. The OIG report says NASA has requested $150 million a year to fund commercial low Earth-orbit development, but only received a fraction of that from Congress. NASA believes the first phase of the plan to get a commercial station operational by 2028 would cost $300 million to $400 million over a six-year period.
Reporter Erik von Ancken contributed to this report.