NASA and its international partners are looking towards retiring the International Space Station in 2030. However, the American space agency has commenced with its plans to continue human space exploration in low earth orbit aboard private space stations after the retirement of the orbiting laboratory.
How NASA is planning to continue crewed exploration in low Earth orbit aboard private space stations
As the International Space Station is approaching its retirement period, NASA is working toward the continuity of human space exploration in low Earth orbit afterward. The agency is hoping that private space stations will help it accomplish its crewed space exploration after 2030.
“The reason this is so important is because we do believe that the impact of a gap will be disruptive,” said ISS director, Robyn Gatens, during a panel discussion at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference earlier this August.
Based on Gatens’ statement, some people will be affected by the impact of the gap. These key players are researchers hoping to send their experiments to space and crew and cargo transportation providers servicing NASA’s ISS goals for a while now. To ensure that there is no slowdown in NASA’s crewed operation in low Earth orbit, the agency is hoping that ISS’s successor will be up and running by 2028.
This two-year transition period will enable the American space agency to safely transfer its human operation in low Earth orbit from the retiring space station to a more improved station.
Why The American Government Is Concerned With NASA Operating in Private Space Stations in the 2030s
In March 2023, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy drafted a strategy that details a plan of action. The plan issued in this strategy is for a smooth shift of research and operations to private space stations by 2030. The policy will boost the United States to take the lead in “an emerging marketplace run by commercial and private enterprises engaged in LEO.” This will significantly enable NASA to maintain an “uninterrupted U.S. presence” in low-Earth orbit.
“The reason we at the White House level released a policy on this topic this year is to prepare seven years in advance so that we do not have to plan for a scenario where there’s a gap,” Ezinne Uzo-Okoro, an assistant director for space policy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during the conference.
Since private space stations are still a new market, any space agency looking forward to working with the industry must be ready to handle the cost challenges and other difficulties. Many professionals in the industry are suggesting that agencies looking at working with commercial space stations must get ready for the issues ahead.
“Agencies will need to worry about things like technical costs and scheduling risks in terms of design and development of the space station platforms,” John Mulholland, the Boeing program manager for the ISS program, said at the conference “They will get there but it will not be easy.”
Why NASA needs More Funding to Continue Operations in Private Space Stations After ISS retires
Mulholland also suggested the need of boosting the budget for the United States Deorbit Vehicle (USDV), a spacecraft that will dock on the ISS before conducting a safe deorbit and re-entry sequence back to Earth. Keep in mind that NASA will likely award the contract for the design and development of this vehicle by March next year.
The increase in funding will assist the agency in upgrading the vehicle. In addition, this will likely boost the science capabilities of a physics instrument used aboard the ISS to search for dark matter, antimatter, and cosmic rays galaxies. Hence, the detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) was installed aboard the ISS as an external module on the station in 2011.
“Its upgrade is expected to take an entire cargo flight, which deserves a plus-up in the budget ahead,” Mulholland said.
As most of the research on the ISS is funded by the federal government and the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 is suspending the debt ceiling towards the end of 2024.
“We will be faced with difficult budget cycles shortly,” Mulholland added.
Angela Hart, manager for NASA’s Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations (CLD) program, revealed the space agency will transfer its expertise in technology to private space station providers. This can significantly improve the sophistication of these next-generation space stations. She also explained that NASA will concentrate on working with partners and the science community to prevent cost overruns and schedule issues over the next year.
What Happens Next After The Retirement of the ISS
Once the ISS retires in 2030, NASA will focus on operating a national laboratory that will offer several commercial platforms. The LEO National Laboratory will represent all government-backed research conducted on a combination of active private space stations.
“The idea is that it would be platform agnostic. So, it’s not a single place, it’s not a single laboratory,” said Gatens. “One really important tenet that we’re looking at is it needs to support but not compete with commercial platforms and service providers.”
International Space Station partners include Canada, Japan, and the European Space Agency (ESA). These partners agreed to continue supporting the ISS until it finally retires in 2030. However, Russia, which is also a partner in the ISS program will stop supporting the orbiting laboratory in 2028. The Rosmoscos wants to concentrate more on building and developing its orbital laboratory. The agency hopes to launch the first module of the station in 2027.
NASA is already creating plans to continue its crewed space exploration aboard private space stations. Hence, the agency is currently working on actualizing this goal by 2028. Based on the plans put in place, we should be expecting to see NASA astronauts aboard private space stations in the next decade. What do you think about this unique plan for the future?