NASA says it plans to plunge the vestiges of the International Space Station (ISS) into a remote part of the Pacific Ocean known as Point Nemo in early 2031, after passing the baton to commercial space stations.
In an updated transition report just delivered to Congress, the space agency detailed the endgame for the space station, which has been hosting international crews continuously since the year 2000 – and hinted at what its astronauts would be doing in low Earth orbit after its fiery destruction.
"The private sector is technically and financially capable of developing and operating commercial low-Earth-orbit destinations, with NASA's assistance," Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial space, said in a news release.
"We look forward to sharing our lessons learned and operations experience with the private sector to help them develop safe, reliable, and cost-effective destinations in space."
The updated report comes a month after NASA announced the Biden administration's decision to extend the station's operating lifetime from 2024 to 2030. NASA says its portion of the space station should be structurally sound at least that long.
Meanwhile, Russian space officials are continuing to assess how their part of the station is holding up, with special attention being given to an air leak in the Russian-built Zvezda service module.
NASA said the members of the 15-nation space station partnership would work together "to ensure there is no threat to the long-term viability of the ISS." At the same time, the report acknowledged that the station can't last forever.
In December, NASA awarded a total of US$415.6 million to three commercial teams – headed by Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space venture, Nanoracks and Northrop Grumman – to start working on concepts for commercial space stations suitable for low Earth orbit, or LEO. Yet another company, Axiom Space, is already building a commercial module for the ISS that's meant eventually to become the springboard for a stand-alone space station.
NASA expects to select at least one commercial space station project in 2025 to be certified to host its astronauts for future missions.
Some of the space station's modules could be split off to become part of other orbital outposts during the transition. The report lays out a plan for shifting operations to those new outposts and gradually lowering the orbit of the old station's remaining modules during the latter half of the 2020s, building up to a climax in 2030.
NASA's current scenario calls for three Russian-built Progress supply spacecraft to fire their thrusters while docked to the station for a months-long deorbit operation. Other spacecraft, perhaps including Northrop Grumman's Cygnus cargo ship, might also play a part.
A crew would be aboard the station for the initial months of the deorbit operation, but the latter stages would be executed remotely after the last crew's departure, toward the end of 2030.
Ground controllers would manage the station's descent so that the final, fiery plunge through the atmosphere occurred in early 2031 over a "spacecraft cemetery" known as the South Pacific Oceanic Uninhabited Area.
Point Nemo – a spot that's situated between New Zealand and the coast of Chile, 1,670 miles away from the nearest speck of land – would be the target point for falling debris. Hundreds of defunct spacecraft, including Russia's Mir space station, have previously been ditched in that isolated part of the Pacific.
The report made clear that after the International Space Station's destruction, NASA expects to be one of many customers pursuing research, training, tourism and media projects in low Earth orbit.
"By the early 2030s, NASA plans to purchase crew time for at least two – and possibly more – NASA crew members per year aboard [commercial LEO destinations] to continue basic microgravity research, applied biomedical research, and ongoing exploration technology development and human research," the report said.
By 2033, NASA expects to save roughly US$1.75 billion a year thanks to the transition to commercial LEO operations. Those savings are likely to be earmarked for more ambitious missions that send astronauts beyond Earth orbit – to the moon and eventually to Mars.