Surprise! NASA wants to commercialize the ISS before its 'deorbit' in 2031

Marking the end of a 'beacon of international collaboration'.
Chris Young

All good things must come to an end.

NASA has just published new details on the final years of operation for the International Space Station (ISS) in its ISS Transition Report, marking the end of an era of unprecedented international collaboration. 

In its report, the U.S. space agency explains that the "latest budget estimate for ISS life extension through 2030 assumes deorbit in January 2031."

An era of unprecedented global scientific collaboration

NASA describes the eventual demise of the space station as the end of a "beacon of international collaboration". Since its launch in 1998, the ISS has laid the foundation for scientific collaborations between global teams from Russia, the US, Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA), making it arguably the most ambitious scientific undertaking in history. The orbital laboratory has led to countless breakthroughs including recent experiments with the Bose-Einstein Quantum state, or the "fifth state of matter."

When NASA does eventually deorbit the station, it will do so through a controlled re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, which will see part of the station disintegrate on re-entry and part of it fall into the ocean. "Eventually, after performing maneuvers to line up the final target ground track and debris footprint over the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area (SPOUA), the area around Point Nemo, ISS operators will perform the ISS re-entry burn, providing the final push to lower ISS as much as possible and ensure safe atmospheric entry," NASA said in its report.

Preparing for life beyond the ISS

Before the ISS ends its life by crashing into the Pacific, NASA explains in a blog post, it will transition to commercial operations over the next decade. The space agency says it aims to develop supply and demand of "the low-Earth orbit commercial economy." 

NASA's new report comes shortly after the Biden administration committed to extending the ISS's operations through 2030. Prior to that point, operations were expected to last until 2024, Russia had given signs it would not renew contracts, and NASA had already begun the transition away from the ISS towards other upcoming commercial space stations. The agency recently announced three large partnerships with Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, and Lockheed Martin. 

REPLACED
An artist's impression of Jeff Bezos-founded Blue Origin's Orbital Reef space station. Source: Orbital Reef

Lockheed Martin is building its space station in collaboration with Nanoracks, and it aims to launch what it calls the "first-ever free-flying commercial space station" in 2027. Blue Origin, meanwhile, is building a "space business park" called Orbital Reef that will enable cutting-edge research, filming in space and will also feature a space hotel.

"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," Phil McAlister, director of commercial space at NASA headquarters, said in the agency's blog post. The ISS might be nearing the end of an illustrious lifespan that marked an unprecedented era of collaboration, but its spirit will live on in the form of a number of new commercial space stations soon set to take to the skies.

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