Eight years from now, the operation of the International Space Station (ISS) –symbol of global collaboration and human capability– will come to an end.
But the dramatic shutdown of ISS operations need not be a somber occasion. In fact, it may be the harbinger of an exciting future for human spaceflight, which, who knows, may already be in an advanced stage.
O ISS project started in 1998, with the launch of the Russian module Zarya, which was its first component.
Dozens of countries worked together to carry out the largest human construction in space. And most notable was the partnership between two resentful enemies—the USA and Russia– after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.
“It was just extraordinary,” says space policy expert Wendy Whitman Cobb of the US Air Force’s School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
For her, “it’s really a great post-war cooperation story.Guerra Free. The Russian space industry was in dire straits. This was an opportunity for the United States and Russia to usher in a new era of working together.”
The result was a huge space station the size of a football field, weighing over 400 tons. It orbits our planet at a speed of 29 thousand kilometers per hour and its cost is at least US$ 150 billion (about R$ 744 billion).
The ISS has been continuously inhabited since the arrival of its first crew in November 2000. But its equipment is aging and, in 2031, it will be removed from orbit and returned to the Earth’s atmosphere, to finally fall into the pacific ocean.
Thousands of scientific experiments have already been carried out on the ISS, either on the American and Russian side of the station, or in the modules built by Europeans and Japanese that were connected to it.
Research has included investigating diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson, the study of new states of matter and the development of ways to grow food in space, such as lettuce and radishes.
Living and working on the station “was a fantastic experience,” according to European Space Agency astronaut Frank de Winne. He visited the station twice, in 2002 and 2009. For de Winne, “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, working in an international partnership and advancing humanity.”
But not everyone agrees that the station’s success has been so great.
The British Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees, for example, claims that the price has been too high for the scientific return obtained. “For sure, just for the science, it wasn’t worth it,” he said.
He suggests that countries focus more on robotic missions such as the James Webb Space Telescopelargely successful, or the ongoing missions to Mars.
“Sending people into space is incredibly expensive,” he says. “I think the future of human spaceflight is for billionaires or adventurers.”
But beyond the research, some people argue that the main achievement of the station was to consolidate humanity as a space species.
Before the launch of the ISS, we were just learning about long-duration space travel, with Russian cosmonauts who spent more than a year on the MIR space station. But the ISS took us to another level, according to space analyst Laura Forczyk, from the American consultancy Astralytical.
“It changed our ideas about what it means to be a space civilization,” she says.
De Winne agrees: “We couldn’t have missed building the space station. There are so many things we’ve learned. It will be a sad day.” [quando ela for retirada de órbita].”
Be that as it may, the demise of the ISS will cap an impressive demonstration of human collaboration, which has survived wars and conflicts on our planet.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine represented the most rigorous test ever faced by the project. And while the collaboration has continued to date, a new partnership seems unlikely in the near future.
“The Russians will no longer participate,” says space historian Cathy Lewis of the US National Air and Space Museum. “They spoke of going their own way and will not be accepted after invasion of Ukraine.“
But the future after the ISS is already being planned. New commercial space stations are expected to take the ISS’s place in Earth’s orbit.
NASA has already outsourced the transport of humans to low Earth orbit to US companies. SpaceX and Boeing. And the agency also began signing contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars for the development of new space stations.
These stations can become small research laboratories or destinations for space tourists, maintaining humanity’s presence in orbit around our planet.
One of the contracted companies is Axiom Space, which has already transported astronauts who paid to board SpaceX rockets to Earth orbit.
The company hopes to start attaching modules to the ISS in 2025. These modules could eventually be separated to form its own station, which could be leased to potential customers. But not everyone was sold on the idea.
“I’m really skeptical about these commercial cases”, says astronomer Jonathan McDowell, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in the United States. “I’m just not convinced that a space station can be profitably run.”
But NASA and other ISS partners are eager to explore these opportunities.
“We’re in big discussions with all these companies,” says Josef Aschbacher, head of the European Space Agency. “We are very interested in finding a way to continue after the ISS demise.”
Return to the Moon
For NASA, the release of the US$ 3 billion (about R$ 14.9 billion) spent annually with the ISS will allow the agency to dedicate itself to other objectives in human spaceflight, especially the transport of astronauts back to the Moon and, one day, to Mars.
The agency is now running its program Artemis to return to the lunar surface. In 2024, four astronauts will fly around the Moon for the first time since 1972, with Apollo 17. The return to the surface of the satellite is planned for 2025.
“The station is expensive”, says space policy specialist John Klein, from George Washington University, in the United States. “They are trying to move forward with the Artemis program.”
NASA also wants to build a new space station near the Lua, known as the lunar station, with the help of international partners. Construction could start later this decade.
It won’t have the size or scale of the ISS, but it could become an important part of future human spaceflights to the Moon and beyond, serving as an outpost for astronauts traveling to and from our natural satellite.
Finally, there is a possibility that the ISS will not be completely destroyed. Some companies fear that taking the entire station out of orbit would be a waste and that some of its modules and resources could be repurposed or reused in space.
A Nasa it has not yet stated whether it is open to these ideas, but it may change its mind as the deadline for removing the ISS from orbit approaches.
“I haven’t found anyone involved in space who really just wants to throw it in the ocean,” says Gary Calnan, CEO (executive director) of US company CisLunar Industries.
In late 2022, CisLunar and several other companies presented a proposal to the White House to reuse some aspects of the space station, such as melting some of its metal or repurposing some of its modules. Calnan says the White House has been receptive.
“They liked the idea,” he says. “It fits in with the current government’s reuse and circular economy policy.”
Either way, the ISS project will come to an end in 2031, either in a burning inferno or being scrapped for other purposes.
In its place, other smaller space stations may arise, ready and waiting to continue the human presence in Earth orbit, with astronauts going further to set foot on the Moon.
The ISS will leave an impressive legacy, but in the annals of history, it may just be the beginning.
“It leaves this notion that despite our obsession with nationalism and borders, we are capable of cooperation,” says Lewis. “We can do this. We can share the wealth.”
This text was originally published here.