The International Space Station has long been an orbiting demonstration of what human beings are capable of when they toss national differences aside and focus on a common goal. Even amid rising tensions between the United States and Russia, the space station’s primary financiers, orbital operations have remained friendly and cooperative – but budgetary constraints in both nations may soon mean the end of the historic platform.
Currently, the International Space Station is slated for destruction sometime in 2024, when it will be manually de-orbited on a trajectory that would see it coming apart somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.

“Year by year, Russia is launching the fuel to fill up the tanks of the ISS service module to enable the space station to be deorbited,” veteran NASA astronaut Michael Foale told the BBC recently. “That’s the current plan–I think it’s a bad plan, a massive waste of a fantastic resource.”

Funding from NASA will be re-allocated to the Space Launch System (rocket platform) that should already be in use by then, and a new American Space Station set to be in orbit around the moon. The station, dubbed the Deep Space Gateway, is expected to provide the basis for further moon and space exploration missions, but remains in the early planning stages.

Russia’s budget constraints are born out of a more complex web of issues, including a recent rash of launch failures in their unmanned missions, and perhaps more significantly, rampant corruption within their space agency, Roscosmos. Mismanaged projects have also accounted for a number of financial losses for the Russians, but it can be difficult to know where legitimate project failures end, and shady dealings begin in some cases.

The International Space Station has been continually occupied since November 2nd, 2000 and has proven invaluable to scientists and researchers in that time. Because of the value the space station offers to science, as well as the uncertain timeline tied to the launch of America’s Deep Space Gateway, Foale isn’t alone in his calls for maintaining the orbital asset even as funding from the United States and Russia dries up. According to Foale, even if the governments don’t deem the aging space station as worthy of their limited space-budgets, private enterprise may be able to step in and save the day.

“I’m hoping that commercial space can come up with a business plan that allows part of the ISS to be maintained in space, without sinking it into the Pacific Ocean,” Foale told reporters. “You have to come up with innovative ways of keeping it in space.”

There are ways for the ISS to fund itself through private enterprise, including research projects and even space tourism, but it’s unclear whether or not the international coalition of nations that have been tasked with its maintenance over the years would be willing to hand the platform over to private companies upon the end of its already extended service life. With a total price tag of around $100 billion, however, it seems worth a try.

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If the world’s governments don’t adjust budget plans and the private industry can’t or won’t step in, the most successful space station in human history will see a fiery end over the Pacific in just about six years time.

 

Image courtesy of NASA