In case you have any illusions about the age of the International Space Station, Monday marked the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Zarya module. This Russian-made power and propulsion module formed the basis of the space station, and its first occupants arrived two years later.
In other words, some of the space station’s hardware has been exposed to the harsh environment of space for a quarter of a century. How long that will last is increasingly a question that is more than theoretical.
NASA has been grappling with how to transition away from the International Space Station for some time. Given that humans have been living in low Earth orbit for over 20 years, there’s a general feeling that it would be good to keep things this way.
NASA’s plan is to continue flying the International Space Station until 2030, if possible given aging hardware and sometimes tenuous relations with Russia. After that, NASA hopes to continue flying one or more commercial space stations. Companies begin operating facilities in low Earth orbit. The agency would then lease time on those commercial operating stations and share them with astronauts and space travelers from other countries.
The problem is, there’s a good chance there won’t be any civilian facilities in orbit by 2030, giving rise to the dreaded “g” word in NASA parlance. gap In terms of ability.
To create a gap or not to create a gap?
After the last Apollo manned flight in 1975, the U.S. space agency did not have the ability to send astronauts into space until the arrival of the Space Shuttle in 1981. This six-year gap in human spaceflight was painful for the space agency. The same process was repeated in 2011 when the Space Shuttle was retired and NASA had to wait nearly nine years for a replacement for SpaceX’s Crew Dragon.
Both of these gaps were caused by a combination of poor planning, inadequate funding, and overly optimistic schedules. Fortunately, it is unlikely that NASA will face a gap in human spaceflight capabilities in the near future. Not only does the agency have a Dragon spacecraft, but Boeing’s Starliner is also expected to begin flying soon. NASA also has its own Orion deep space probe. Looking further ahead, SpaceX is planning a larger Starship spacecraft, Sierra Space will eventually add a crew to its Dream Chaser, and Blue Origin is also planning a crewed spacecraft. doing.as El Guapo says in Three amigos!NASA will soon lots of of the crew vehicle.
The bigger question now is where will they go?
NASA has been planning the transition to “commercial LEO destinations,” known as CLDs, for about five years. He has agreements to develop three different concepts with Axiom Space, Blue Origin, and Voyager Space. cooperate with other companies, with a variety of plans, including SpaceX and Vast Space. The agency plans to enter into a major “services” contract with one or more companies in 2026 to support the development of private stations.
The real question is whether these options will be ready in four years. The space station is tough. It took NASA and six other space agencies around the world a decade to plan, build, and launch the first elements of the International Space Station. These companies are expected to do this more quickly and with far less capital.
Maybe the gap is okay
At a meeting of the NASA Advisory Board’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee on Monday, NASA officials said they don’t want to see a gap in low Earth orbit. But Phil McAllister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight division, which oversees the CLD program, said he was open to the results if they offered a long-term solution.
“That’s not good and we don’t want a gap,” McAllister said. “But even if CLD isn’t ready, we might be able to get it. Personally, I don’t think it’s the end of the world, especially in a relatively short period of time. If so, it is not irreversible. It may have some impact on some research.” However, Crew Dragon and Starliner can be utilized to reduce the impact of the gap. ”
McAllister said the two spacecraft could be prepared for a two-person crew to stay in space for up to 10 days to complete the necessary research.
One reason why gaps are inevitable is funding. McAllister noted that the federal budget could be cut in future cycles as the U.S. government reins in spending. “Given the budgetary challenges we face, something has to give,” he said.
The US Congress is already somewhat reluctant to fully fund a commercial space station, and it seems not unreasonable that less funding for a commercial space station would delay its development.
Although McAllister did not mention it Monday, some commercial space station companies have also expressed concerns about the prospects for expansion of the International Space Station. If NASA or Congress push through with his extension of the aging facility beyond 2030, it could jeopardize its ability to raise private funding for a commercial replacement.