The International Space Station (ISS), one of the most expensive megastructures in history, has been orbiting in space for decades at more than 340 kilometers high. And there it will stay for now, even if its future is not clear as of 2024. The International Space Station is facing the future with the need to reinvent itself.
The International Space Station is a feat of science, engineering, and also marks a milestone in international cooperation. It is the highest scientific laboratory in the world, and also the largest place inhabited by humans outside of planet Earth. The astronauts who stay at the ISS see 16 sunrises and sunsets a day, as the spaceship moves at a speed of 7.66 kilometers per second, meaning that it orbits around our planet 16 times throughout the day. With a capacity to store up to six spacecrafts simultaneously, the 419,725 kilograms of the ISS constitute the most expensive individual object in history, according to NASA, with a price that is literally astronomical: over $93 billion.
Given its uniqueness, it isn’t surprising that the ISS holds several space records, like the space meeting with the most people in history, with 13 people from NASA’s 2009 STS-127 shuttle mission on board the Endeavour or the longest space walk: 8 hours and 56 minutes during a mission to rebuild the ISS in 2001.
Although it exists thanks to the cooperation of 16 countries, NASA (U.S.), Roscosmos (Russia) and the European Space Agency are the main partners, and therefore provide the bulk of the funding. The majority of the construction was completed between 1998 and 2011, although the station is constantly evolving. It is operational and has been constantly occupied by astronauts since 2000.
THE PRICE TO PAY FOR THE SECOND LUNAR LANDING
Although the idea of optimizing economic synergies to cover the costly investment required for space exploration resides in its foundation, it is precisely a question of budget that has the future of the ISS on tenterhooks. For NASA, which is currently interested in returning mankind to the moon, it is too expensive to continue participating in ISS maintenance. Designed as a trampoline to new space missions, the ISS has become an financial obstacle for them. This dilemma began during the Obama Administration when the ISS was still under construction. However, Trump Administration budget cuts in 2018 were the final push to start to design the end of the station as we know it. New private partners entering the space exploration market could prevent the International Space Station from ending up floating in the ocean as scrap metal, as was foreseen in the initial plan. In order for it to remain operational, for the first time, NASA is open to private funding and is currently discussing an extension until at least 2028.
A PRIVILEGED PLACE FOR RESEARCH
The ISS is a place where experiments on different aspects of life in space can be conducted in privileged conditions. Since its founding, more than 3,000 research projects from 108 countries have taken place, according to NASA. The long-term flights, which can last for several months, make it possible to research the astronauts’ health metrics and how parameters such as muscular strength, bone density or alterations in genetic expression evolve in space. The human body changes in microgravity, generating alterations in muscles, the cardiovascular system and eyes. Research also explores the behavior of the bacteria and microbes that accompany the human body in space.
From this perspective, the ISS serves as a trampoline and a place to train for potential missions to the moon or Mars. Also, in the engineering field, energy storage solutions, new hardware developments and even technologies like 3D printing are tested. In parallel, other experiments are designed to better understand how the universe works – from higher energy particles that cross our solar system to the distant and extremely dense cadavers of old stars.
OPEN TO SPACE TOURISM AND COMMERCIAL FLIGHTS
Private investment into the International Space Station could end up turning its facilities into a space hotel – a concept that may seem like science fiction, but is already attracting investors like the Russian space contractor RKK Energy, which even has a proposal that would use ISS hardware in a new module.
Different companies like SpaceX and Boeing are preparing for a new era of commercial flights to space and they could use the ISS as the first stop on their space routes. In fact, in spring of 2020, SpaceX ‘s ‘Dragon Crew’ successfully docked on the International Space Station, thus marking the start of this new space era- An era that could also save the ISS from an uncertain future drifting in the Pacific Ocean after decades of service to research and science.