What’s going to happen to the ISS?

After two decades of ISS being the only game in town when it comes to space stations, things are finally starting to change. The decommissioning for ISS is in early planning stages now and the progress happening on new replacement stations from NASA and China, and perhaps Russia, as well as privately owned stations are starting to look like they are potentially close to finding a viable market. The future of space stations is looking bright.

In 60 years of human space travel fewer than 600 people have been in space. And the maximum number of people who have been there at the same time is 13 – a record set in 1995.

The good news is that since the ISS has become fully operational we have maintained a continuous presence in earth orbit. The ISS crew complement of between 3 and 6 people has been held since the year 2000. The limiting factor in putting more people up on the space station at the same time has not been the size of the station, but on our ability to have escape vehicle capacity to leave in the case of an emergency.

The ISS is currently scheduled for end of life in the late 2020s. There have been discussions at NASA about how to do that. It’s a complicated international investment and different parties may have different ideas for what to do with the modules and equipment they have up there.

In the case of the Russian modules, rumours are that they are investigating the potential of taking their components off to re-use on a Russian space station. NASA is potentially looking at the possibility of finding a way to off-load the operational aspects of the station to private industry. Certainly de-orbiting the whole thing would be dangerous and seemingly wasteful.

China meanwhile has quietly already launched 2 short lived experimental space stations and is planning a larger modular Chinese station to call their own.

NASA and international partners have shifted their focus to the new Gateway station. A small orbital outpost in heliocentric orbit of the moon – our first attempt at building something outside of Earth orbit. Though not designed to be permanently crewed, Gateway builds on the same modular design principles used for the ISS and will create new obligations to get astronauts out to lunar orbit on a regular basis for the foreseeable future.

This is I think one of the biggest lessons from operating the ISS for the last 20 years. A great way at ensuring stable funding over a long time horizon, across multiple changes in governments is to have complex international agreements and sunk costs into the infrastructure that would be a waste to very publically abandon.

In the private sector, things might finally be approaching a point where lower cost reusable rockets from SpaceX and Blue Origin make a privately owned and operated space station something that has a viable business case. NASA has been advancing a vision of increased private activity in space starting with the successful goal of privatizing the supply rockets to the ISS. Now they are looking into finding ways to make it possible for private industry to operate space stations.

The best benefit from introducing multiple companies to operate at the same time (rather than picking a single contractor to build something like say – the space shuttle) is that we get diversity of ideas and visions. A variety of rockets to choose from, with different trade offs for cost, payloads, and scheduling. Paying companies for the service, rather than time and materials contracts puts pressure on the supplying company to work on things that can deliver value to more customers than just NASA. They still need to go out and drum up other business to make things work financially.

When it comes to space stations we need the diversity of ideas more than ever, because there is wide open un-test potential for what to build, and unknown, untapped demand for things we might want to do in space if it was more affordable to do so.

This is why companies like Bigelow aerospace has attached a test module to the ISS to validate it’s inflatable module technology and prepare for a more ambitious development of an orbital space hotel.

Axiom space is a private company that likewise has developed conceptual modules for expanding the ISS and building independant space stations. They have proposed a future of expanding and replacing modules over time on ISS, essentially to rebuild it into something new.

Blue Origin has submitted a proposal for a space station that looks to be based on a New Glenn upper stage. They are in the early stages of discovering the viable business strategy for building space habitats.

Other companies like – SNC, Space Adventures, SSL/Maxar, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman all have their own visions for what the biggest opportunities are for using a space station be it for science, in space manufacturing, tourism or for servicing other activities in space.

Space stations are central to the future commercialization of space and part of the bigger picture of expanding human influence out to the moon. We can’t have a human presence in space without a place for humans to stay. The rockets are coming that will make it more possible than ever to get people up in greater numbers and lower cost. The next challenge will be to build enough places for them to stay and work when they get there.