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No One Knows What To Do With the International Space Station (popsci.com) 236

An anonymous reader shares a report: In 2024 the clock will run out on the International Space Station. Maybe. That's the arbitrary deadline that Congress imposed back in 2014, at which point they'll have to decide whether or not to keep funding the ISS. And yeah, that's a whole seven years away. But then again...it's only seven years away. The ISS takes up half of NASA's human exploration budget -- half of the pile of money allotted for things like sending humans to Mars or to an asteroid. And if they want to push further into space exploration, NASA can't keep sinking three to four billion dollars a year into the ISS. Not that it's really their decision. Congress -- specifically the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology -- decides how much money NASA will get. And because politicians aren't experts in space travel, they keep holding hearings to discuss what they could possibly do with the ISS in seven years' time. Let private industry take it over? Let it crash and burn into the South Pacific? Let the program keep running? The latest hearing took place last week. These are hard questions, in part because people have very different opinions on what's valuable about NASA, and therefore about whether the ISS is still useful. Maybe you think that NASA should really be about exploration, about pushing the boundaries of what we know and where we can travel. In that case, the ISS might not be your first priority. That's a huge chunk of the budget that goes toward bringing things back and forth to low Earth orbit instead of venturing to other planets.
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No One Knows What To Do With the International Space Station

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  • Is it news? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) * on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:41PM (#54121001)

    That's the arbitrary deadline that Congress imposed back in 2014, at which point they'll have to decide whether or not to keep funding the ISS.

    In all likelyhood we will continue to use it beyond 2024, that's not a "hard" retirement date, it's a "let's look at the program and funding" date. Case in point: the B-52 is well past its original retirement date.

    The better question is if the money spent to continue ISS is money well spent.

    • Perhaps it will be used in conjunction with the Mars mission.

      Hell, put a booster on it and throw on a few upgrades/repairs and make it a Martian orbital station. It already has proven itself capable of very long term missions.

      • If we're going to move it, why not put it in orbit around the Moon? It's closer, so moving it to the Moon would take far less fuel than moving it to Mars, and it would make research and building bases on the Moon more likely.

        You wouldn't have to land on the Moon with the same ship you left Earth in. You'd transfer to the station and take a dedicated lunar lander to go down to the surface. The station could grow to an enormous size, kinda like in "2001 A Space Odyssey" except with the station in lunar orbit
    • We could treat the expensive and largely pointless ISS the way we planned SkyLab. Mothball it, and reactivate it every now and then for a few weeks or months to run experiments that are important enough to justify the expense. Might be useful in that mode and might not even be terribly expensive.

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Even if the US did abandon it in 2024, large chunks including the core modules are Russian and would likely be detached and re-used. Jettison the US bits and build a new station around what's left, including modules from any other countries that are still interested (e.g. Japan). Probably with Chinese involvement.

      The US should keep it going though. It will be useful when trying to get to Mars. A great platform for running zero-G experiments and simulations to assist the Mars crew when problems arise. It see

      • We should just give our modules to some other country or countries that are interested. Maybe the ESA or JAXA would like it. Obviously we're too short-sighted to do space exploration competently any more, so we should leave it to other nations, and perhaps pay them to do it too.

  • by turkeydance ( 1266624 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:44PM (#54121013)
    i have a dream
  • by jfdavis668 ( 1414919 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:45PM (#54121033)
    to keep aliens out.
    • No, we should donate it to Hollywood so they can film the destruction of it BY aliens!

      Recent movies like Life and Gravity have shows that they're getting really good at destroying NASA stuff in CGI, but imagine what they could do with the real thing!

  • I think this would pair nicely with your SpaceX business, don't you?

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      I think this would pair nicely with your SpaceX business, don't you?

      Since the international space station isn't likely to be a technology that will help them get to Mars, I doubt it.

      If you remember, SpaceX mentioned that it didn't compete for the Ansari X-Prize because it was a distraction. They aren't even competing for the Lunar X-Prize (although they are launching one of the competitors). Managing a disintegrating international space station would be a distraction which would dwarf these other distractions.

      I seems unlikely Mr. Musk would be spending any of his money on

  • by LordStormes ( 1749242 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:52PM (#54121091) Homepage Journal

    Let's strap a couple rockets to it and move it to lunar orbit. Empty it out of personnel, let it do a nice, slow burn to lunar orbit. Slower is cheaper in space. Let it take however long it does to get there, and then we can start sending unmanned Dragon capsules back out to resupply it and lunar shuttles via SpaceX. This would be a good "next step" toward eventually building a permanent structure on the lunar service, and could eventually serve as a sort of waystation for missions on the way out to Mars.

    Bear in mind: The lunar soil is full of O3 and H3, which both make for excellent rocket fuel. An unmanned refinery on the moon could turn Luna into a gas station for any interplanetary mission at a fraction of the cost of lifting all that material out of Earth's orbit.

    • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:08PM (#54121237) Homepage

      That's a really interesting idea but what is this "O3" and "H3" you are talking about?

      I think you're confusing "O3" with the right most term in FeTiO3, which is ilmenite, a very common rock on the moon (take a look at: https://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.go... [nasa.gov]). The "O3" is simply three oxygen atoms in each molecule of ilmenite.

      As for "H3", how about "He3", which is an isotope of helium with only one neutron instead of the more common He4 which has two. This has been an important part of the dream/fantasy that lunar He3 can be burned with deuterium in a clean fusion reaction.

    • by Shatrat ( 855151 )

      I think it would have to be quite slow. I'm sure each individual module is designed to handle acceleration, but the whole assembled station surely is not. Still, I think this is probably a better plan that burning it up in the atmosphere.

      • The ISS gets regular orbital boosts to stay in orbit. So yes, the whole assembled station is designed to handle acceleration.

        Here's the mean altitude of the ISS: http://www.heavens-above.com/I... [heavens-above.com]

        The large vertical jumps are when a resupply ship thrusted it to a higher altitude. (I don't know what's up with the data point in January)

    • by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:11PM (#54121259) Journal
      I am not an expert on orbital mechanics, but I recall hearing the major problem with re-purposing the ISS is its orbit. [wikipedia.org] In order for it to be served by all of the international partners, it has to be on an orbit with a funky inclination. [wikipedia.org] Changing the inclination of an object already in orbit requires a lot of energy. It's usually easier to just send up a new one.

      I suspect this inclination issue would still be a concern for a trip to the moon.
      • by mykepredko ( 40154 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:32PM (#54121423) Homepage

        Actually it's not. I asked this question to Chris Hadfield (sorry for the name dropping) about two years ago and the 57 degree inclination of the ISS doesn't preclude a trajectory to any lunar orbital inclination - the trajectory required might be a bit wonky (meaning it will take a very long time to get there) but it is possible.

        I suspect the biggest limiting factor will be the increased radiation the ISS (and its occupants) will encounter outside of the Van Allen belts.

        • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

          It doesn't prevent you from going to the Moon. But it's a really shitty way to get to the Moon, since you waste fuel delivering payload to ISS, and then waste fuel getting payload from ISS to the Moon.

          The high latitude of the launch site was one of the reasons the Soviet Union had so much trouble launching manned lunar missions.

        • by Megane ( 129182 )
          To be fair, you don't need to change inclination to enter LTO, you just need to boost at the right point in your orbit. However, I think you would reach the moon at a corresponding inclination unless you do something to change it, and mass concentrations in the moon may make the resulting orbit unstable. (there are only a few stable inclinations for low lunar orbit, the rest will decay in days or weeks)
        • ... thought it was 51.6?
      • by idji ( 984038 )
        There are still times when you could fire the Space Station to a lunar insertion trajectory. It would no longer be in the ecliptic, but when you get to the Moon the speed of the ISS would be much slower as the orbit is more like 3 hours, than 90 minutes at the moment, so you would need much less fuel to delta V the orbit to be in the ecliptic.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      ISS isn't designed for Lunar orbit. Radiation shielding would be the first issue, it relies on the Van Allen belts for most of its protection. Secondly it would need quite a bit more propulsion capability for Lunar orbit, the moon has a very "lumpy" gravity field that doesn't play nice with orbiting craft. I would also imagine that its electrical and radiator systems would need some significant adjustments. It could of course be retrofit, but that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. It would be like shi

      • It's an interesting idea, but it would be costly. I suspect at the end of the day it would probably be cheaper to build a Lunar satellite that retrofit ISS. Basically you would need to add a lot more shielding, and I have my suspicions that would be difficult to accomplish.

        Honestly, while it doubtless costs and will continue to cost a lot to maintain, maintaining it is still cheaper than (eventually) building a new orbiter. Obviously there are finite limits to how long anything habitable can remain in space

      • I was going to comment what you said but then I looked into the numbers
        From NASA data:
        ISS astronaut 6 months 160 mSv --> 0.66 mSv/day
        Apollo Mission 14 astronaut 9 day 11.4 mSv --> 1.26 mSv/day
        NASA Career exposure limits at age 35 would allow 2.5 Sv or in low earth orbit 0.5 Sv/year --> 2.7 mSv/day.
        Maybe the ISS could be relatively safe in lunar orbit, as long as it is used for short term missions.
        And one could argue that adding a radiation shielded module might moderate radiation levels.
        The ISS do

      • The lumpy gravity field shouldn't be *that* big a problem. The ISS is designed to orbit Earth, which has an atmosphere (which gives a little drag on the ISS at that altitude), and 6 times the gravity of the Moon. So even if the Moon's gravity is uneven compared to Earth's, it should be possible to compensate for that pretty easily. The ISS can also be placed in a higher orbit where presumably the lumpy gravity will be less of a factor. On Earth, the LEO orbit is probably chosen because of radiation prot

        • by Megane ( 129182 )

          The lumpy gravity field shouldn't be *that* big a problem.

          It has nothing to do with ISS, and everything to do with the mass concentrations [wikipedia.org] on the moon. There are only a few inclinations with stable orbits. The others will decay in weeks to months.

    • by sbaker ( 47485 )

      The trouble is that once you're out of low Earth Orbit, you don't get any of the earth's magnetic field protection from solar radiation. Long term occupancy of a structure outside of that orbit requires decent quantities of shielding - which the ISS doesn't have.

      If you think the ISS is costly to maintain now - imagine what it would be if each resupply mission needs a rocket the size of a Saturn V to get food, water and oxygen up to a lunar orbit.

      Sure, EVENTUALLY, you can get oxygen and water from the moon

    • by paiute ( 550198 )

      Let's strap a couple rockets to it and move it to lunar orbit.

      Raise your hand if you don't have an armed space station.

    • by slew ( 2918 )

      Let's strap a couple rockets to it and move it to lunar orbit. Empty it out of personnel, let it do a nice, slow burn to lunar orbit. Slower is cheaper in space. Let it take however long it does to get there, and then we can start sending unmanned Dragon capsules back out to resupply it and lunar shuttles via SpaceX. This would be a good "next step" toward eventually building a permanent structure on the lunar service, and could eventually serve as a sort of waystation for missions on the way out to Mars.

      Bear in mind: The lunar soil is full of O3 and H3, which both make for excellent rocket fuel. An unmanned refinery on the moon could turn Luna into a gas station for any interplanetary mission at a fraction of the cost of lifting all that material out of Earth's orbit.

      You forgot the small fact that the ISS is basically a collection of thin metal tubes with minimal thrusters. Some people have estimated that it would take about 150 years and about 150 fueling trips to make a lunar orbit transfer. I suspect the ISS couldn't take the stress of a burn that it would take to accomplish this in a reasonable amount of time (e.g., strap-on-rockets). Even if a tractable method was found, the ISS needs to be supplied by the Earth. Putting the ISS by the moon makes this exponentia

      • The ISS is already designed for significant thrust, as it's boosted in orbit regularly by visiting spacecraft. The onboard thrusters are for minor corrections only.

    • Let's strap a couple rockets to it and move it to lunar orbit. Empty it out of personnel, let it do a nice, slow burn to lunar orbit. Slower is cheaper in space. Let it take however long it does to get there, and then we can start sending unmanned Dragon capsules back out to resupply it and lunar shuttles via SpaceX. This would be a good "next step" toward eventually building a permanent structure on the lunar service, and could eventually serve as a sort of waystation for missions on the way out to Mars.

      Why would this be a good "next step"? Any permanent structure on the Moon or in lunar orbit will be unmanned (due the exorbitant expense of keeping humans that far out) - what would be the point of a structure whose only purpose is to be a habitation?

      If (hopefully) we find a way to harness fusion energy to make an efficient rocket engine, the components on earth are better for fusion than the components on the moon (He3 is not a particularly good fusion fuel) - why wouldn't we just ship the components

    • It is in low earth orbit, basically barely above the atmosphere. Energy-wise it is about 20% of the way where compared to escaping earth's gravity (which the Moon more or less is beyond for these purposes). So strap a crap-ton of rockets on it and shove away.

    • I don't think you know what O3 & H3 are (Certainly not rocket fuel) and as for putting it in orbit around the moon the ISS is not designed to operate out side the Earth's Van Allen Belts putting it in orbit around the moon would be pointless as anyone going aboard would get a massive radiation dose in a matter of hours
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:54PM (#54121123)

    The purpose of the ISS was to help us learn about how people can live and work in microgravity. It isn't an assembly facility or a staging ground for large interplanetary vessels, and it isn't a permanent settlement. If it has served that purpose, then yes, let's plan to retire the station with the dignity it deserves. Perhaps it, or part of it, could be boosted to a higher "archive" orbit, and left there as a historic monument?

    An extra $3B to $4B made available for manned missions to the asteroids (my first choice) or nearby moons or planets, would be a game changer for those programs. A permanent, or at least continuous, human presence on or near another celestial body would certainly be a worthy successor to the ISS, even if it takes 20 to 40 years to establish.

    • I'd like a new telescope. At first I thought maybe some of the ISS components could be reused to run the power systems for a new orbital telescope. Sadly the labor in space is more expensive than lifting new components. Having someone spacewalk to disassemble the ISS is probably a no go.

      If we had a way to cheaply disassemble in micro-gravity, perhaps with more sophisticated robotics, then we could part out the ISS and sell the components to other projects. Highest bidder gets it and they can work out the pr

    • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

      Russia has already said it doesn't want to de-orbit its parts so either Russia could take over running it or at the very least parts are likely to be recycled and used for decades to come. In that case, preserving it might not be an option.

  • by LordStormes ( 1749242 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @02:57PM (#54121141) Homepage Journal

    This is why we need to start "Operation Add an A" and try to convince some sneaky congressman to insert a single letter into the budget appropriations bill, and hope nobody notices until all of the NSA's checks start getting routed to NASA instead.

    • by Leuf ( 918654 )
      I thought you meant to rename it to ISSA so Darrell Issa will make sure it gets extra funding. But boy is that the wrong guy to look to for science funding.
  • by OrangeTide ( 124937 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:02PM (#54121173) Homepage Journal

    Unless we really increase the science we're getting done with the ISS, then I'd rather have more probes or a new telescope.

    • by sbaker ( 47485 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:28PM (#54121391) Homepage

      I agree - it's really not doing a whole lot for us.

      Ditching it into the pacific would be a bad idea - but donating it to privately owned space businesses like SpaceX and Bigelow who are already working with the ISS would make a lot more sense. Consider the boost to US business if those companies had free access to the ISS!

      NASA did their job here - they got private industry interested in that stuff - now they can step back from doing what they already know how to do - and get on with the difficult researchy stuff.

  • by ninthbit ( 623926 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @03:06PM (#54121207)

    Even if they decide they don't have a use for it, why the hell would they crash it into the ocean. I really don't see why they wouldn't just mothball the bitch and maintain it in orbit.

    Best case, it's there if they need it for something. Worst case, it's a valuable study into how an unmaintained craft holds up.

    I do also like one of the previous ideas about shuttling it over to the moon. I just question how much energy it would need to overcome earths gravity and break free from it's orbit. It is a bit massive.

    • I really don't see why they wouldn't just mothball the bitch and maintain it in orbit.

      Without proper maintenance and periodic boosts into higher orbit, "mothball the bitch" will eventually fall back to earth and smack Australia again. Those kangaroos don't like being bitch slapped.

    • by jeff4747 ( 256583 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @04:14PM (#54121743)

      There is still atmospheric drag at the ISS's altitude. You have to boost it regularly to keep it in orbit.

      Here's a graph [heavens-above.com] of the altitude of the ISS. You can see the boosts, followed by a slow decay until the next boost.

    • I do also like one of the previous ideas about shuttling it over to the moon. I just question how much energy it would need to overcome earths gravity and break free from it's orbit. It is a bit massive.

      Well, it's already moving at about 70% of escape velocity. With something like an ion engine and plenty of time, I don't see any reason the remaining delta-vee couldn't be added.

    • The ISS is not in an orbit high enough to be long-term stable. There's microscopic amounts of drag from the extremely thin near-Earth atmosphere, but that still adds up. Every resupply mission to the ISS gives it a small altitude boost, to keep it in orbit.

      If those boosts stop happening, even if the ISS is kept in it's low-drag configuration (align the solar panels edge-on), it *will* come down, in a matter of years. When it does, it is very likely parts of it will survive re-entry and be a hazard to people

  • Would it be economically feasible? Yes they can make ISS contractor owned and operated but what would the customer base be? I'm guessing the government, or companies reimbursed by the government. There is a website "Rocketpunk" like "Steampunk" where it implies we have dreamed of space stations since the 1950s Collier Magazine series about hundreds of people in space doing various things. However, NASA ruined all that by developments where a few kg of electronics replace people to perform duties of communic
  • Space weapons platform.

    Glorious orange leader can destroy his enemies from space!

    • Space weapons platform.

      Glorious orange leader can destroy his enemies from space!

      That's right a Star Wars sequel, by a new retarded TV president. It is about time.

  • I'm thinking Watto [wikia.com].

  • We can rid ourselves of this $1e11 white elephant by entering a few simple commands:

    Destruct sequence 1 code 1 1a
    Destruct sequence 2 code 1 1a 2b
    Destruct sequence 3 code 1b 2b 3
    Destruct sequence code 0 0 0 destruct 0

  • by tgrigsby ( 164308 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @04:40PM (#54121915) Homepage Journal

    Mind if I dream for a minute?

    1. Build a set of solar powered soil processors that can pull the toxins out of Martial soil, including H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide), break down the H2O2 into hydrogen and oxygen and compress the H and O for storage in tanks.
    2. Build a set of relay tugs capable of using H and O to launch into orbit from Mars' surface and return in one piece several thousand times without significant repairs.
    3. Build a set of zero-gee drones that can handle the H and O tanks.
    4. Build a set of Martial surface drones that can handle the H and O tanks.
    5. Break the ISS in half. Break one half down and brace it as needed Take one half, attach boosters and a payload containing the soil processors, the tugs, and the drones, and take off for Mars. Unmanned.

    [ 2 years later ]

    6. Arrive at Mars.
    7. Soil processors, tugs, and surface drones drop off, land on Mars near a water deposits + cliff face / lava tube / cave
    8. Orbital drones start reassembling the newly relocated MSS (Mars Space Station).
    9. Soil processors begin churning out non-toxic soil and shipping rocket fuel up to the MSS.

    [ some time later ]

    10. Humans arrive.
    11. The supply part of their ship detaches, lands on Mars not far from soil processors.
    12. The human transport portion of the ship docks with the MSS.
    13. The finish reassembling the MSS, including attaching the human transport as a new module.
    14. They hop on the tug and head down to Mars.
    15. They begin using the detoxified soil to grow crops and start building an underground facility

    [ some time later ]

    16. Subsequent ships arrive
    17. dock with MSS, drop off new modules, and
    a. refuel, pick up supplies, continue outward
    b. head to Mars' surface.

    • by garote ( 682822 )

      That's a beautiful dream.

      "... launch into orbit from Mars' surface and return in one piece several thousand times ..."

      That's a beautiful fantasy.

  • by ctrl-alt-canc ( 977108 ) on Monday March 27, 2017 @04:46PM (#54121991)

    Somebody will rent it, now and then. It would be advisable also to make an agreement with Uber, so that people renting the ISS will have a discount for the trip.

  • in 1972, when congress pretty much killed Apollo, and came up with the Space Shuttle. Oh whooppppiieeee! A "space truck" that goes? NO WHERE. The ISS is "ok" but it's not extending our reach into outer space, just around our own little planet.
    • by garote ( 682822 )

      Complete disagreement. LEO is a fine stopping point for humans just now. Robots, on the other hand ...

      We are right now making astounding advancements in software and sensors.

      We will soon be able to deliver robots to Mars and beyond that can go so many places, and gather so much data, that millions of people on Earth will be able to stroll around the solar system in VR headsets, rather than a dozen or so armor-wrapped and cancer-riddled astronauts. (Not by directly controlling robots of course, but by cons

  • It's ripe for exploitation for one of those reality shows.

  • Send all of congress up to it. Then send it into the sun.
  • Just auction it off to private corp or at least some country that cares a bit more about science.
    Of course, if we have any hope of surviving a trip to another planet and finding out ways of doing so, the ISS is an invaluable asset that should keep going... but as long as we have people in power who cannot understand simple concepts like that, it's just better to let other people take control and give it a better shot.

  • Can someone please explain... how you spend 3-4B /year on something you can't even fly to?

    Is that the cost of the Russian Taxi service plus the SpaceX vacuum-friendly FedEx truck deliveries?

  • Certain vital components of the ISS are already close to their certified lifetime. Some of these, like the seals between modules that keep the station airtight, are very difficult to replace (imagine having to undock the modules in the middle of the station).

    So in any new function, the station would last only a few years before a costly overhaul.

  • Since it's already up there, fly up a couple of rockets, mount them to the station, then send that sucker over to fly around Mars for a bit instead. Use it as a safe point/refueling station for all the traffic that's going to go there the next few years.

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