Article Derived From Transcript of YouTube Video: Has Russia’s War Doomed The International Space Station?

Transcript of YouTube Video: Has Russia’s War Doomed The International Space Station?

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The International Space Station (ISS) is projected to be decommissioned in the coming decade due to its aging structure and the high costs of maintenance, which amount to approximately $3 billion annually. The ISS has served as a crucial platform for scientific research and international cooperation since 1998. However, factors such as thermal stress, micrometeorite impacts, and political tensions—particularly Russia's role following the war in Ukraine—pose significant challenges to its continued operation. The station's retirement is also tied to NASA's financial constraints and strategic shift towards lunar missions and commercial space partnerships. Despite the setbacks, there are plans for a transition involving private space companies like SpaceX and Axiom Space to potentially take over and maintain a human presence in orbit. The ISS's eventual deorbiting will mark the end of an era in international space collaboration and set the stage for new endeavors in space exploration and commercialization.

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The International Space Station's Future

Sometime in the next decade, the International Space Station will begin a slow descent from orbit. A gradual decline in its 400 kilometers altitude, bringing the massive structure down to thicker and thicker layers of our atmosphere before it reaches a point of no return, 280 kilometers above our heads. From here air resistance will rapidly slow down the station and begin to tear it apart. Disintegrating over a planned debris field centered around Point Nemo, the furthest point from any landmass on Earth. The South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area. Here, in Earth's watery spacecraft graveyard, the remains of the ISS will lay after over 2 decades of valuable service to humankind.

Why Decommission the ISS?

The ISS has been growing gradually since the very first components of the station reached orbit. On November 20th, 1998, the Zarya Cargo Module, the first module of the ISS, launched aboard a Russian Proton Rocket from Kazakhstan. Zarya was the seed for what was to come, carrying with it the docking, electrical power, propulsion, and guidance systems needed to gradually grow what was to become an unprecedented piece of international space infrastructure.

The Growth of the ISS

Zarya was joined just two weeks later by the Unity Module. A module with 2 axial connection points, one on either end of the module, and 4 radial connection points around its circumference. Where the first truss segments would be attached, allowing massive solar arrays to deploy and provide power for the growing space laboratory. These sections of the International Station remain in space to this day, providing for the needs of over 250 individual astronauts in orbit around Earth over the past 23 years.

The Impermanence of the ISS

But this home in space was never intended to be permanent, and many components are showing their age. The Zarya module, that seed from which the entire space station grew, has developed several cracks that are going to continually grow. Cyclical thermal expansion, caused by the 16 sunsets and sunrises the ISS witnesses each and every day, stresses the structure of the station and causes these modules to gradually degrade over time.

Challenges and Maintenance

While jolts from spacecraft docking with the space station can also cause stress in the structure. Not to mention the constant bombardment from micrometeorites and space debris that has damaged vital components of the ISS, like the strike on the Canadarm in 2021. Mystery pressure leaks have even forced Astronauts into wild goose chases seeking the source as their atmosphere slowly vents to space. Problems like this have been cropping up more and more frequently as the station ages.

The Role of Russia and the ISS's Life Limit

These modules, part of the primary structure of the ISS, are what will limit the life of the station, and at some point, the modules will need to be retired, the question is when. Each participating partner of the ISS is expected to inspect and perform life extending maintenance, and while the North American, Canadian, European, and Japanese space agencies have performed these checks through to 2028, however, critically, Russia, who have now become an international pariah, have only completed these checks through to 2024. Limiting the ISS’s current lifetime to just 2 years.

The Impact of the War in Ukraine

The war in the Ukraine has thrown NASA’S recent transition and decommissioning report, which planned to deorbit the ISS by 2031, into limbo. Without Russian cooperation the transition plan is unfeasible, as the International Space Station was never designed to have large sections of its structure removed to allow a participating partner to cease cooperation. Without Russia, we may only have 2 years of operation of the International Space Station left, potentially dooming NASAs future plans laid out in the transition report.

NASA's Transition and Decommissioning Report

To understand what we may have just lost let’s dive into the decommissioning and transition report. NASA has been planning this decommissioning for some time, and for good reason. The International Space Station costs NASA roughly 3 billion dollar every year. With the costs split fairly evenly between the cost of transporting astronauts and supplies to orbit and system operations and maintenance of the station itself.

The Economic Reality of the ISS

To put that into perspective, 3 billion is over 10% of NASA’s total 24 billion dollar budget and over a third of their human space flight budget. To really put that into perspective, the Perseverance rover mission cost a total of 2.7 billion dollars. These costs are the real reason the ISS will be decommissioned.

The Transition Plan for the ISS

The transition report lays out a plan to decommission the International Space Station to create up to 1.8 billion dollars a year in budget that could be used for NASA’s moon colony goals. That’s exciting in itself, but is losing the international space station in the process worth it? Well, luckily, the transition plan lays out how NASA will not only free up 1.8 billion dollars of annual budget, but also maintain a presence in orbit.

The Rise of Commercial Spaceflight

Commercial space flight has rapidly changed the face of the space industry in the last 10 years. In fact with the current state of affairs with the war in Ukraine, without SpaceX, NASA would be unable to send astronauts to the ISS, as the Falcon 9 is the only American rocket fully certified for transporting humans to the ISS. It is this advancement in the private space industry that is going to allow NASA to maintain a presence in orbit, while saving enough money to fund a perseverance rover every 18 months.

The Future of Space Economy

The bulk of this money saving will be achieved by offloading the development and maintenance of the next generation of orbiting space habitats to the commercial space industry. NASA has long desired to do this, and the benefits are clear with the success of SpaceX. Commercial industry is competitive, but in order to allow the commercial space industry to flourish in low earth orbit, there must be something to sell. A viable economy must exist.

Identifying Promising Enterprises

In order to stimulate this new economy, NASA has conducted studies to identify the most promising enterprises that could find their home in the next generation space station, and several of those enterprises were part of the transition plan for the ISS. NASA identified a couple of key industries that could flourish in space. The first of which is the entertainment industry.

Space Entertainment Enterprises

Imagine a world where the battle room of Ender’s game is possible. That’s a world that Space Entertainment Enterprises is seeking to create. With their spherical inflatable movie studio, they are slated to film an unnamed movie with Tom Cruise as the leading actor. This however would not be a one off production. The studio would be rentable by anyone with a high enough budget.

Axiom Space and the ISS Expansion

In 2020, NASA awarded Axiom space a contract worth 140 million dollars to launch a module that would attach to the ISS in 2024, which will provide accommodation for private astronauts and continue scientific research. This is the first step in a planned expansion of a private section of the International Station, which, if successful, will be followed by additional modules that would allow the Axiom space station to operate completely independently from the ISS and expand on the other industries that NASA identified as potentially profitable space economies.

Microgravity Manufacturing

Microgravity manufacturing was another industry identified. Manufacturing without the influence of gravity has some major advantages that are just waiting for the right product that can justify the cost of shipping raw materials to space. Processes that are driven by gravity, like sedimentation, convection, and hydrostatic pressure are eliminated, which affect manufacturing processes.

The Future of the ISS Amidst International Tensions

With the current transition plan, this Axiom commercial space station will detach from the ISS in 2028, becoming the new seed from which the space station can continue to grow and provide a space for future NASA astronauts to work from, with rental payments due to Axiom and transportation costs to SpaceX. There is a lot to look forward to with that plan, but what are the chances this goes ahead with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine making it impossible to work with them.

The Dependence on International Cooperation

Russia’s segments rely on America’s segments for power, and the USA segments rely on Russian propulsion to stay in orbit and avoid space debris. This is an international space station that relies on international cooperation. It’s clear that Russian astronauts oppose the war in Ukraine, based on their recent uniform change, but they do not call the shots here.

The Decisions Ahead for NASA

The reality is, if this continues, NASA will need to make some major decisions in the next two years. There are a few potential outcomes here. The Russian’s separating their modules is not one of them. As they need that power from the rest of the ISS and would struggle to complete that work without the help of the Canadian robotic arm.

Possible Outcomes and the Future of Space Exploration

Russia could, under some miracle, get its act together in the next 2 years and remove Putin’s regime and continue international cooperation in space. Or, Russia's segments may not be certified through to 2028, forcing the deorbiting of the International Space Station to be advanced, with the transition to a commercial space station abandoned. Alternatively, emergency funds could be allocated to NASA to rapidly supply the ISS with additional modules to replace Russian services, like propulsion for orbit maintenance and debris avoidance, allowing the transition plans to continue on as normal. Or, the funds could simply be allocated to the commercial space companies to accelerate transition plans, but that is a massive ask for unproven vendors in a 2-year timeframe.

The Inevitable End of the ISS

One thing is for sure. The current structure of the ISS is on borrowed time. Its aging primary structure is becoming a larger and larger issue every year, and at some point in the next decade, it will be deorbited. The only question now is when.

The Legacy of the ISS

It’s hard to believe that the International Space Station has been in orbit for just over twenty years. It’s been a huge source of inspiration for aspiring engineers and scientists around the world, a frontier of scientific research. With only 253 individual astronauts from 19 different countries getting the privilege to visit and work from the ISS, it’s seen by many as the pinnacle scientific career achievement.

Continuing the Pursuit of Knowledge

Luckily we can all get our little dose of joy of scientific learning from Brilliant. That dopamine rush of solving a problem you have been trying to figure out is what drove me towards a career in engineering. Brilliant has refined that fun interactive learning down perfectly to motivate you to continue your learning through difficult subjects.


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