Is the 25-year-old International Space Station a waste of space, since it only gains attention when the toilets malfunction?
The International Space Station is nearing a significant achievement. In November, the massive spacecraft will have completed 25 years in orbit around Earth.
Over the past 25 years, numerous astronauts have resided temporarily in this location, while other guests have consisted of frogs, worms, shellfish, and butterflies. These creatures have all been used as subjects in experiments to investigate the impacts of weightlessness, radiation, and other extraterrestrial occurrences on living beings. Furthermore, astronauts have conducted research on topics such as dark matter, cosmic rays, and Earth’s ozone layers.
However, the lifespan of this massive 100-meter structure, which was launched into orbit on November 20, 1998 with the first segment being Russia’s Zarya module, is coming to an end. The station has exceeded its planned duration by ten years and is experiencing increased issues such as air leaks, thruster malfunctions, and other mishaps due to its frequent heating and cooling cycles as it orbits the Earth at 17,500mph. Vibrations from spacecraft dockings and crew movements are also contributing to these problems, along with the deteriorating, almost outdated equipment.
Therefore, Nasa has decided that the International Space Station (ISS), currently composed of 16 pressurized modules, will be decommissioned and intentionally deorbited into the Pacific Ocean in 2031. The agency maintains that the potential danger to humans from the 400-ton craft impacting Earth will be minimal. According to Nasa, any resulting debris would sink to the ocean floor and have no significant long-term effects.
The upcoming demise of the International Space Station brings up important inquiries. Was the cost of £120bn for construction and operation worth it? What knowledge have we gained in the last 25 years that justifies this massive expenditure? What will take its place, and who will cover the expenses?
The initial inquiry is highly debated. Numerous experts argue that the ISS has offered invaluable understanding on adapting to and functioning in zero gravity, knowledge that will be essential as humanity plans to revisit the moon and embark on extended journeys to Mars and beyond. As a result of the space station, it has been established that humans can establish habitats in outer space, a critical lesson according to these experts.
Some people hold a different viewpoint. They claim that the funds allocated for the International Space Station could have been utilized more effectively in other ventures. In the 1990s, when the development of the ISS was being planned, the United States – the primary sponsor of the global station – was considering two major competing scientific projects. The first option was the ISS, while the second was a proposed particle accelerator known as the Superconducting Super Collider. Both projects had exorbitant costs, and due to financial limitations, the US Congress could only provide funding for one. Ultimately, for primarily political reasons, they opted for the ISS and terminated funding for the super collider.
Europe was given the opportunity to construct the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at Cern in Geneva after a decision was made, allowing for groundbreaking research that has resulted in numerous Nobel prizes. In contrast, the US was left with what physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg referred to as an “orbital turkey” with the International Space Station (ISS). Weinberg argued that the only significant technology developed on the ISS was related to sustaining human life in space, which he deemed pointless and cyclical given that there is no purpose for humans in space.
According to Martin Rees, the UK Astronomer Royal, the argument for sending humans into space is losing strength as robots become more advanced and capable. In an interview with the Observer, Rees stated that robots are able to conduct scientific research, build structures in space, and are more cost-efficient than humans. Therefore, human presence is not necessary for space exploration and research.
“Simply observe the news headlines,” Rees remarked. “The only instances the ISS gains attention is when its toilets malfunction or an astronaut strums a guitar while singing Space Oddity.”
Although the ISS may be coming to an end in the next few years, space stations will still be visible in the night sky. The US, Europe, Japan, Canada, and India have all announced their intentions to launch and construct new orbiting laboratories. China has also built its own permanent crewed station, Tiangong, which is expected to outlast the ISS. In the near future, Tiangong will be expanded with additional modules, doubling its current size.
The United States, along with Europe, Japan, and Canada, is collaborating to construct Gateway, a scaled-down version of the ISS that will orbit around the moon. Astronauts will regularly visit the station for both short and extended periods of time. They will use robot spacecraft to survey the moon’s surface and aid in the development of a permanent manned base.
The market is anticipated to undergo transformation with the entrance of private entrepreneurs. A major player, Axiom, a company based in the US, captured attention last week with news that it had partnered with the UK Space Agency to send four British astronauts on a two-week space station mission in the coming future.
In 2026, Axiom plans to introduce four new segments, referred to as habitats, to the ISS. Michael Baine, the company’s chief engineer, shared with the Observer that each habitat will accommodate four astronauts sponsored by a nation or private company for research and productive tasks while in orbit. It should be noted that this is not a tourist-related endeavor.
Baine announced that their four modules will be sent into space using privately owned rockets, specifically SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launcher. These modules will then be assembled at the station and later separated to form a new space station before the ISS is deliberately crashed into the Pacific. In short, the new station will emerge from the remnants of the old one.
Baine stated that each module has a lifespan of at least 15 years, potentially up to 30 years, and our goal is to significantly enhance its capacity over time.
“Space offers potential for producing a variety of biological and pharmacological products, as well as crystals, fiber optics, and metallurgy. These industries have great revenue potential and our goal is to capitalize on it.”
Nasa is supporting various private ventures, including Orbital Reef and Starlab, both based in the US. Orbital Reef envisions their proposed space station as a “business park” in outer space.
Baine stated that future space stations have the potential to be a blend of zero-gravity manufacturing facilities and scientific research centers.