On November 2nd, 2000, humans set foot on the International Space Station (ISS). What we now know as two decades of continuous habitation in space.
During these 20 years, the US$150 billion orbital space lab has hosted 241 crew members from 19 different countries. And in doing so, has made up 43% of all people in space.
The 16 module station houses four Russian, nine US, two Japanese, and one European module with six regular crew members taking six-monthly shifts. To date, the rotating crew have conducted more than 3,000 scientific experiments.
But as the bi-decadal benchmark came and went, we were reminded that all good things come to an end.
And the ISS is no different.
Although the ISS is cleared to circle Earth until 2028, wear and tear is an issue.
And the White House has "asked" NASA to stop finding the ISS in 2025.
It's highly doubtful that NASA will clear the space station for another run past 2028, and will be decommissioned sometime shortly after.
A good run considering its expected shelf-life was only 15 years.
The station's mileage has seen a Russian toilet go kaput, an oxygen-supply system on the fritz, and a notorious air leak worsen over time. Cosmonaut Gennady Padalka said of the Russian side of the ISS, "All modules of the Russian segment are exhausted,'
And it's not like a Russian - let alone a Russian cosmonaut - to complain.
Once NASA decides to retire and decommission the space station, the complex will be de-orbited over the Pacific Ocean, most likely burning up during re-entry.
So, what does a post-ISS space look like?
Much further away.
To be exact, 410,000km - or 30 Earth diameters - away.
The Lunar Gateway, or the "Gateway", is a planned mini-space station in lunar orbit, rather than Earth. It will be a solar-powered communication hub, science laboratory, short-term habitat, and storage facility for rovers and similar exploration devices.
“Gateway has been developed to take humans beyond low Earth orbit and out into the cosmos,” says Dr James Carpenter, an ESA scientist working on the new space station. “The idea is that it provides an infrastructure for future exploration, and somewhere we can learn how to live and work in deep space.”
The Gateway will be a major part of the Deep Space Transport concept to progress towards Mars, as well as the next woman and man on the moon named the Artemis program slated for 2024.
Although the Gateway is a NASA directive, the station will be developed, serviced and maintained by participating commercial and international partners such as:
- Canada's CSA
- Europe's ESA
- Japan's JAXA
The Gateway will be the new home of offworld scientific experimentation with dedicated missions to explore the Moon's potential for water, especially the lunar south pole. The Gateway will make the surface of the Moon one short hop for astronauts, allowing them to explore like never before. The Gateway will add to the 3,000 strong experiment history of the ISS and include planetary science, astrophysics, Earth observation, heliophysics, fundamental space biology, and human health and performance.
But is the Gateway bigger and better than its predecessor?
Bigger, no. Better, not necessarily.
At 109m long and 73m wide, the ISS is slightly larger than an American football field. The main body of Gateway will be 30-35m long and 5m wide. And while the ISS is occupied by at least three astronauts 365 days a year, Gateway will be occupied by four crew members, but only for 30 days a year, due to the cost of getting astronauts there. The rest of the time, there will be no humans on board.
While the Gateway is the future of space...
The near-future of space is private.
And a bevvy of suitors are raising their hands to fill the wake of the floating lab with ingenious and/or innovative ideas.
Axiom Space and Bigelow Aerospace believe adding extensions to the ISS is the way forward. And extensions will disconnect to serve as independent floating labs when the ISS is eventually decommissioned.
Houston based Axiom Space plans to build the first commercial space station on the back of the ISS. And with a NASA contract for at least one new livable commercial module, they will have a detachable independent space outpost in the years following post-ISS.
Axiom Space's Earth Observatory plan, "... takes advantage of the lessons learned from the Axiom team’s intimate involvement in the design, construction, and operation of the ISS. This along with modern manufacturing processes, industrial-grade hardware, and software design tools makes the new platform lower cost to build, easier to maintain, and ready to upgrade,"
While not exclusively a floating hotel, it won't be exclusively for scientific discovery either.
Robert Bigelow, the owner of Bigelow Aerospace and real estate billionaire, currently has an experimental inflating module attached to the ISS since 2016. He plans to increase the number to three with two larger expandable modules next year. The newer modules boast 330 cubic meters, about the size of a 1,165-square-foot apartment with 4.5 metre high ceilings. Bigelow said in 2019 the modules feature "... two galleys, two toilets, enormous cargo space, and two dissimilar propulsion systems, this is the ideal habitat for a long-duration space mission,"
“The time is now to quantify in detail the global, national and corporate commercial space market for orbiting stations,” Bigelow said. “This subject has had ambiguity for many years.”
More aggressive companies, like Jeff Bezo's Blue Origin, hope to build space accommodation large enough to resemble life on Earth. Meaning visitors and dwellers need not be professionally trained for space.
Bezo's long term vision is large scale habitats housing millions of workers stretching across the solar system to move heavy industry off-world. The colony environments would need to simulate those on Earth including gravity and weather.
But before the ISS is decommissioned? Probably not.
“In three of the four scenarios we postulated, revenues did not cover costs,” says Bhavya Lal, from the Institute for Defense Analyses’ Science and Technology Policy Institute.
“Venture capitalists we spoke to indicated that projected revenue streams are too far in the future and too uncertain to warrant making significant investments today. Overall, our analysis showed that it is unlikely a commercial space station would be economically viable by 2025.”
An extension of the ISS's life would impede our progress in deep space and further delay our return to the moon. Not to mention the hefty costs associated.
Although the ISS's longtime run is nearing its end, there are many new and exciting options in the private sector.
Will we see more laboratory-based stations from the private sector?
What do you think?
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