Humans have lived aboard the International Space Station for more than two decades.
As the International Space Station marked its 25th anniversary on Monday, its age becomes even more apparent. Zarya module, crucial to the space station’s foundation, was launched exactly 25 years ago. Since then, the hardware within the station has endured the harsh conditions of outer space, raising questions about its longevity.
Despite facing this difficult reality, NASA has been contemplating its transition from the International Space Station for quite some time. The agency’s plan, at least until 2030, involves continuing to operate the station, provided the aging hardware and the relationship with Russia allow it. NASA aspires to hand over the operations to private entities after 2030, leasing time on commercially-operated stations to astronauts from various nations and even space tourists.
However, the daunting possibility of no private facilities being operational by 2030 brings concerns of a potential “gap” in capabilities.
The Question of Gap
NASA has a history of struggling during the gaps in human spaceflight capabilities, both between Apollo and Space Shuttle and after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. However, with the emergence of various spacecraft such as Crew Dragon, Starliner, Starship, and other upcoming projects, it’s unlikely that the agency will face such a gap soon. While NASA has been planning for a move to “commercial LEO destinations,” it’s still uncertain whether these options will be ready within the given timeline.
Maybe a gap is OK
During a recent committee meeting, a NASA official expressed reluctance towards a potential gap in low-Earth orbit, while acknowledging its possibility due to the readiness of CLDs. However, he suggested leveraging existing spacecraft to minimize any potential impact if a gap does occur.
The feasibility of commercial space stations is also subject to the expected federal budget cuts, which might limit their development. Additionally, concerns have been raised about an extension for the International Space Station hindering the capital raising efforts for commercial replacements.