De-orbiting the ISS in 2016?

By Phil Plait | July 21, 2009 2:20 pm

The nearly-completed space station

I was very disturbed to see an article in the Washington Post claiming that a top NASA official was saying that the International Space Station might be purposely de-orbited as early as 2016!

That shocked me. I am no fan of the ISS, and wish that money had been spent instead on a concerted effort to build a Moonbase — or almost anything else — but now that the money is spent it’s crazy to talk about dropping it into the Pacific just a few years after it’s built.

Well, as it turns out, the date of 2016? Maybe not so much. Nancy Atkinson at Universe Today has the story. Basically, delays in completing the station may delay its eventual demise. However, it’s fair to note that NASA’s budget can fluctuate substantially, and is at the mercy of the whims of Congress. With even the Constellation program at risk — and Constellation has already been started up — it’s hard or even impossible to say where NASA will be in a half dozen years, or what it will be doing.


Comments (85)

  1. Joe Meils

    So basically what the NASA official is saying is: “Fork over the money, or the space station “gets it!”?”

  2. DrFlimmer

    Hm… but still the station is international… that’s where it got its name from 😉 . I think ESA and others will have to say something about it….

  3. Umm… What happened to the “I” in “ISS”?

  4. Dropping something in the ocean shortly after it’s finally finished is, indeed, a bit weird. I mean, if it’s a budget thing, I could see halting continuous occupation, but just letting the whole expensive mess get destroyed? Unless it really just needs its orbit boosted that frequently or something.

  5. Oh, I see. I think this, from the UT link, is the relevant bit:

    Fiscal year 2016 is currently when the existing agreements between the international partners – and the all-important funding – expire. Suffredini also told the panel that discussions with the partners indicate all involved would like to see station operations continue past FY2016.

    So it’s a bit like having an apartment lease that’s almost up, really. That doesn’t mean you’re going to be kicked out, just that you need to sign a new lease if you intend to stay.

  6. I like the analogy Joshua because I don’t remember them destroying the building I was living in when my lease was up. Strange thing to do.

    Are they afraid aliens are going to occupy it? Space Vagrants?

  7. Flip

    Is it even finished yet?

  8. They’re not trashing the whole thing! Just, you know, everyone except the Russians.

  9. Buffalodavid

    It could be argued that it was a waste to begin with, but this seems an even greater one. Anyway, when do we start building “The Wheel”?

  10. Savino

    They should use this money on a mission to Europa (submarine one) or a floater and a baloon to Titan!

    But, since the money is already up there in space, LET THE DAMN THING UP THERE!!!!!!

  11. chief

    I had a thought that if they put the cost of a mission to mars at 150 billion. take 20 billion or so of that and upgrade the space station and use it as the main platform to get to mars. This assumes that the joint sections are strong enough to withstand rocket attachments and so on. I certainly can support people for long durations and has the room already in orbit. this would save a chunk of lifting of hardware cost into space wouldn’t it?

  12. How hard would it be to disassemble the modules and move them to the moon in sections? Is there any savings through re-purposing them since they’ve already been hauled up? Or installing robots in the station and putting it into a Lagrangian point?

  13. I agree with Phil, I would have preferred the money to build the station would have gone to other space projects, but we should now look to use this thing until it is basically falling apart. This is an asset the world has in space, and we should try to get as much use out of it. Actually, JUSTIFY the cost spent on it. Well maintained, I don’t see why we can’t use this thing for decades.

  14. mdcowan

    Firstly, I am a structural engineer in the ISS program.

    The first thing you should know is that structures have a design lifetime. The ISS was designed to last 15 years. (that was the requirement anyway.) The Node 1 module was launched in December 1998. The ISS took too long to construct because of Shuttle problems. We are currently looking into developing a means to determine how much longer it could last. Repurposing the structure could be quite difficult.

    Was it worth building….in my opinion yes. We have already been forced to learn many lessons about sustained existence in space. We need to learn more and a presence in space is the only way to learn it. We should be able to certify it for use for many years out.

  15. Reed

    If they don’t actively maintain the orbit, atmospheric drag will cause it to de-orbit in an uncontrolled manner, like skylab. Given the size, substantial parts would survive entry and potentially damage things on the ground. Nations who launch spacecraft are required to dispose of them responsibly.

    ISS isn’t designed to operate outside of low earth orbit. Trying to convert it would be very difficult, and if you succeeded, you’d end up with something much more massive than a purpose designed mars craft. This is bad, because getting mass to mars and back is really really expensive.

  16. chief

    I guess two ground to orbit and then mars direct ships is the way to go to keep the loads down. one to hold the crew and supplies to get there and back and the second to hold the mars descent craft and scientific payload gear for on the surface?

    I’ve read about using linear accelerators to loft into orbit (say on side of a mountain), would it be a better cost issue to build this technology first and then do a large scale mars lift to orbit.

  17. Declare International Space Station Freedom FUBAR Space Hole One Alpha to be a national park. The toilets are exactly as they should be to qualify.

  18. Ben

    3. Ken B Says:
    July 21st, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    Umm… What happened to the “I” in “ISS”?

    The thing of it is, as an International project it sets the bar really low. The United States funded the majority of it, most assuredly the majority of the structure, Zarya , and the nodes and Cupola. Not to mention, we did most of the lifting and install if you will. I also think we should at least operate it until 2020, and this despite me having no real love of ISS and how it was managed but we’re stuck with it and at least should get our investment back if we can.

    At the same time, it is a technological marvel and it isn’t like we haven’t learned anything from ISS.

    Honestly, there should of been at least two launch systems instead of putting all your eggs in one basket with the shuttle. Like that would ever happen (The past is the past), delays with Russia nearly killed the project as it was.

    NASA very much wants to justify and keep ISS around, its just not that easy without money and need I remind you the whole human spaceflight for the United States is under review at the moment.

  19. jdac

    So if Joshua is right, people are worried that the ISS will be de-orbited in 2016 in the same way that people worry the world will end in 2012?

    The irony.

    If the ISS is more trouble and money than it’s worth, isn’t maintaining it just the sunk cost fallacy in action? If the money we currently spend on the ISS could be freed up for better use by scrapping it, wouldn’t we be fools not to do it?

    I don’t know enough myself to judge if that’s really the case, of course.

  20. John

    Got my Galileoscopes today and I’m pumped. Thanks for pointing those out to all of us!

  21. pontoppi

    It seems to me that the original purposes of the ISS, were to show that 1) it is possible to manufacture a large structure in space from numerous parts, 2) that such a massive project could be carried out in an international framework and 3) that people can live in space for extended periods of time. Now that these objectives have, in fact, been reached, perhaps with arguable success, the station no longer has a purpose, and can be decommissioned. Unless – somebody can come up with a really compelling reason for keeping it. I haven’t heard one yet. Space-Gitmo?

    I hope they will de-orbit it on the 4th of July.

  22. Two words: SPACE. TELETHON.

    Save Our Station 2016! Live! With a fabulous line up of stars such as Hollywood’s own Clone Clooney and the Head of Jerry Lewis!

    To uplink your payment via PayPal, click the air in front of your face now. Having trouble accessing the virtual tactility holographics? Try clearing all cookies and rebooting your aux brain.

    This telethon is sponsored in part by Hill Valley Hover-Conversions. Why drive when you can fly?

    Broadcast not available in certain jurisdictions. See your censorship authority for details.

  23. dhtroy

    Could they not get everyone out of it, “shut it down”, yet keep it in orbit until they find another use for it? Seemed like a huge waste when they created it, but an even larger one just ditching it.

  24. AR

    If the ISS has enough political support to exist in the first place, why don’t the same people who favor continued government funding just get together and buy it? Then they can continue to operate it with their own money and the cost/benefit analysis becomes a purely private problem.

  25. Dan I.

    From what I understand, and this comes from a relative I have who works at NASA Langley Research Center, the 2016 date comes from the original plan for the ISS (back when it was called Freedom or something like that). The original lifespan was supposed to be until 2016, but I think that was based on a completion date somewhere in the mid-90’s.

    Phil, you’d probably know better than me about the veracity of that though.

  26. Crudely Wrott

    An asset is not an asset if you burn it up.

    No matter what the goal, you must use the tools at hand or create (at spiraling expense) new ones.

    If they burn up the ISS that will burn my ass. And what chafes most is that we really don’t know what we will do in space in the next decade or two. A reasonable mind might assume that the presence of the ISS is a very handy tool to keep in the toolbox.

    I say we keep it until it is superseded by something better. Perhaps a new space station or a fleet of smaller specialized ones.

    To deorbit the ISS is to derail many good plans, a few of which will be worthy. No one now can tell for sure what will be important later on. It is usually best to retain a useful tool against some future need.

  27. K

    Maybe Branson, Shuttleworth, and Musk can all go in together and start their first space hotel…

    I’m only half kidding… 😉

  28. MadScientist

    Moon base? How can we build a moon base when we can’t even build an orbiting science lab?

    I’d love to work on moonbase technology though; systems to block out the harsh sunlight or at least reflect the radiation you don’t want, systems to keep the warmth in during the loooong nights (will probably still need nuclear power for heating). The Russians might have fixed up the main regenerative oxygen supply (bacteria) – we certainly can’t supply compressed oxygen or magnesium perchlorate quick enough to keep people alive.

  29. LukeL

    One has to ask, what is the purpose of a space station. Can we truly learn a lot from having a permanent presence in space? Could the money better be spent going back to the moon, or even building a deep drill on the lunar surface. I would love to see some core samples of lunar rock.

  30. If it’s still paying to operate ISS in 2016, NASA won’t be doing much else. That’s the problem here – ISS’s operating costs are completely out of whack with its scientific (or media-friendly) benefit

  31. Pieter Kok

    …now that the money is spent it’s crazy to talk about dropping it into the Pacific just a few years after it’s built.

    This is exactly the type of reasoning that allows projects to go two, three times over budget. There is still a cost associated with keeping it in orbit and running it, and pulling the plug will save that money. As others have pointed out, we have learnt a lot about building structures in space and living in space for prolonged periods. The key is to know when to quit.

  32. Michael Kingsford Gray

    They should scrap the useless white elephant as soon as possible.
    I am in complete agreement with Prof Bob Park on this pointless political tin-can.

  33. Sean

    It should be deorbited immediately. It is completely useless, just a toy for billionaire tourists paid for by taxpayers. There is no scientific value and there never was, nor is it any kind of stepping stone for manned exploration.

    It cost a ton of money, and continues to cost a ton of money. As you say, it is better to spend the money on “almost anything else.” It is foolish to use sunk costs as a justification for a white elephant.

  34. Hey Phil, are you not covering the longest total solar eclipse of the century? (visible today in the Eastern Hemisphere)

  35. Sumedh

    Why not just move this thing into lunar orbit?

    I mean, the bulk of the work of getting it up there has been done, and we’re going to be going back there soon anyways. In fact, why not just do a controlled touchdown on the moon, for future astronauts to use as scrap/supplies?

  36. IBY

    This is sad. It cost a ton of money, and they are already planning for its eventual doom. I don’t know what they did in the ISS, and I am not even aware how productive they were. However, they should use the most out of it before just dumping it.

  37. Papa Surf

    When we are ‘done’ with it and it is vacated I say we attach a rocket to it and boost the whole stack into a big orbit around the sun. Then space tourists of the future could visit it for an inflated future price and we use the money to build… a laser!

  38. outcast

    We could always sell our stake to the Chinese. They’ll probably find some good use for it…… 😛

  39. daniel

    Talk about a way for NASA to get even less funding than it gets now…what a terrible waste!

  40. Tom

    The current budget and plan says “ISS to 2016” so that’s what the engineers and planners and NASA work towards. But everyone ‘knows’ that the ISS will get extended, and when it does, they’ll work towards that too.

  41. Elmar_M

    The ISS was a mistake. Dont get me wrong, I think that the research is important, but the ISS was built at the wrong time.
    The first goal should have been to make orbital transport affordable. For that a COTS like programme would have been a good idea. Let the industry deliver what NASA needs and fund it via milestones. Without the ISS, NASA would have had enough budget for that.
    Then once orbital transport would have been cheap enough, building the ISS would have cost only a fraction and sustaining it even less.
    Right now we have the worlds most expensive research lab and no road to get to it.
    Same goes for your Moonbase Phil. In that case it would be even more extreme, I think. There again we should first establish a way to get to the moon cheaply enough and then build the moonbase. Otherwise all we will get is another Apollo, a temporary presence without a way to sustain a longer operation due to the expenses of transportation.

    In regards to the ISS being deorbitet. I sure hope it will be up until Bigelow gets up his modules.

  42. Anders Elfgren

    Phil, could you elaborate more in another blog post why you think the ISS is a bad idea – for space-station-ignorant people like me who don’t know the pros and cons :)

  43. I’ve heard the idea of sending the ISS to the moon or further banished about here quite often, and there is a major problem with that.
    Radiation, the ISS was designed for LEO under the protection of the Earth’s magnetic field. It is not made to protect astronauts from the cosmic rays and solar radiation.
    The Apollo astronauts received the same amount of radiation that Nuclear Plant worker gets in a year, and 24 of them suffered health problems because of it.
    Putting the ISS anywhere outside the Earth’s magnetic field would mean an astronaut would get Nuclear Plant workers lifetime exposure in 2 months.
    So moving the ISS outside the Earth’s magnetic field is not an option.

  44. @ Joshua:

    The ISS indeed needs frequent reboosts. It is big (large drag) and in a low orbit. Without frequent reboosts, it would decay within 2.5 years if left to its own.

    Reboosts are usually done using the engines of the Progress supply ships when they have docked to the ISS. Such reboosts are done several times a year currently.

  45. Okay, just for fun I did a decay prediction using SatEvo software and the current ISS orbit. Without any reboost, it would decay by August 2011.

  46. UmTutSut

    Elmar_M Says: “The first goal should have been to make orbital transport affordable. For that a COTS like programme would have been a good idea.”

    Yabbut, it’s not that easy. As long as we’re wedded to multi-stage vehicles with chemical propulsion, even LEO flight won’t be “affordable.” We could get closer with single-stage-to-orbit technology, but that’s still apparently beyond our reach. (At least, in the civil space world; who knows what “black” vehicles the military has?)

    But I suspect Elmar_M has the gist of what’s likely to happen. Commercial enterprise may take over LEO operations, leaving governments to conduct Moon-Mars exploration. Not a bad idea, really….

  47. John H.

    I have the feeling that once Mars has been reached by astronauts NASA will then go and scrap the technology needed to get there.

  48. Charles Boyer

    The station’s partners will take it over, or someone like Elon Musk will simply buy the darned thing.

    This is simply politics. And damnit, I am tired of NASA playing games like this.

  49. Even if the whole station isn’t useful/viable past a certain date, surely parts of are. I’m thinking of the solar panels, but there have to be a dozen subsystems that could be useful for a variety of other missions. We spent a lot of money, fuel, time, and effort getting those solar panels into orbit; why not leave them there?

    When I take an old car to the junkyard, I first remove the nice aftermarket stereo system that I added, the brand-new floor mats, and anything else I think I can use. Before the ISS is deorbited, we should send a salvage mission to strip the useful stuff and boost it into a higher, more stable, yet accessible orbit where it will wait until we need it.

  50. llewelly

    The sooner we get rid of it, the sooner we’ll be able to replace it.

    As for ISS science helping us get to Mars … well, it does, a little bit, but it also illustrates a failure to face the biggest danger of human space exploration anywhere outside the Van Allen belts: Radiation.

    A space station protected from radiation by the Van Allen belts will never get us ready to make a multi-year journey beyond their protection.

  51. Andres Villarreal

    The crisis that will happen when the news “Biggest white elephant in history will die today” hits the newsstands may be a good thing.
    The biggest recent successes of NASA have been done on a budget, while the worst disasters (ISS and the Shuttle) have been done under the assumption that manned space exploration must continue at any cost, even while running over costs of several times the original budget.

  52. MartyM
  53. I was reading about von braun’s plans on a mission to mars and beyond (as with his original mission to the moon) and one thing he mentioneds over is the idea instead of launching one vehicle to go anywhere is that we could send parts of the vehicle in chunks and then assemble it in orbit. All that was needed, over and over was a space station in orbit.

    If you think about it it makes perfectly sense: isntead of one big rocket to the moon or mars we would use a shuttle like design to send astronauts to orbit, were they could then go into a purpose driven vehicle to the orbit of the moon (or mars) and then into another purpose made for landing in the moon(mars).

    It might make the trip less adventurous that way, but each individual vehicle can be built for one purpose and then kept parked in orbit waiting for the next passenger. If done well enough the cost of keeping each vehicle orbiting is minimal, and the cost of each trip is reduced. It scales better and creates a constant flow of people to and from the moon base and it’s a lot more economical.

    I am not sure if the ISS was ever built as a part of this bigger Von Brauns plan, or if it could made that way, but it gives the ISS a real purpose: it’s our dock to other worlds.

  54. Gary Ansorge

    Re-boosting the ISS currently requires a chemical rocket motor, which means mass that must first be launched from earth. That’s expensive. One proposal I’ve seen to eliminate that cost involves an electromagnetic tether in which current flowing at right angles to the earths mag field drives the station forward in it’s orbit. It would be powered by the ISS solar panels. Very low thrust but continuous over long periods.

    Point made that the ISS has insufficient shielding to allow survival of organic systems beyond LEO, however it is an ideal place for orbital construction of other systems, like lunar access craft, very large space telescopes, satellite power systems and other orbital manufacturing.

    I expect some enterprising Corporation may rent the ISS for such use in coming years(for, say, one dollar/year) and use it for such endeavors.

    GAry 7

  55. redxavier

    There’s little point having the ISS up there just for the sake of having it up there. If by 2016 no-one has a use for it then by all means it should be de-orbited. Especially since by then the Europa and Titan missions will need all the funding they can get.

    Hopefully, NASA, ESA or the Russians or Chinese can salvage the station before it’s destroyed, as there may be useful materials to recycle or even some value in studying the long-term effects of space on machines.

    @alexandre van de sande
    It’s costly to get weight into orbit and a ship going to Mars would likely have to be pretty big and thus heavy. I think it’s almost a necessity to follow von Braun’s concept here and at least partially assemble the craft in Earth orbit, and then leaving from orbit directly rather than blasting the whole thing off from the surface.

    I recall there was even a method proposed by which the return vehicle and supplies would be sent to Mars separately ahead of a manned mission.

  56. I agree with you Phil about keeping the ISS in orbit longer. The path taken to building the ISS was a long and very expensive one. The Saturn V could have built a space station comparable to the ISS in only 3 launches within a year that could have been accessed by the Saturn 1B. If the Ares V is built it will be able to construct a larger space station in only 2 launches in 6 months. However, the ISS is worth the effort, not because of any potential for scientific research, but because ISS is driving commercial competition to develop cheaper access to space. SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are on the cusp of providing cheaper cargo and crew launchers to NASA through COTS program. Developing a base for infrastructure helps drives economic and transportation development. For example, does anyone believe that the transcontinental railroad would have been built if there were no cities and towns with potential markets on the West Coast? The federal government provided the land and initial investments to the railroad companies to build the track. The ISS should definitely be extended and maintained beyond 2020.

  57. Elmar_M

    AresV while I have less issues with the concept than with AresI, is still a very expensive launch vehicle. Personally I would prefer having very cheap low payload RLV than having an expensive heavy lifter. The DCX was such a nice concept. It would have been able to get some payload into orbit. Enough for 2 or 3 people and some supplies. Or the equivalent in payload. That is enough for starters. Once getting stuff (even little stuff) to orbit is cheap enough, then we can simply build things up there.

  58. Jeff

    NASA has a history of inconsistency. The moon landings were cancelled, the shuttle was started, and now they’re talking of getting rid of ISS. The next step is uncertain. Mike Griffin admitted that NASA lost its way. But, man, they sure took a lot of taxpayer dollars, and why are they inconsistent. I contend, for example, that Apollo evolved because Kennedy thundered “we’ll land a man on moon by 1970”, I heard that speech, and remember, it was the “cold war” that almost fried US and Cuba. So Apollo had a strong cold war political component. Then they started drifting after they “beat” the Russians .

    Hey, there is no reason it had to be this way. NASA was formed in 1959, 50 years ago. I can barely remember that, but can. Why didn’t they just say, Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, moonbase, and that’s the program up to 2010. And why not have partnered with soviet union and ESA? (all you anti CTers out there, JFK actually did plan a partnership but intelligence spooks wouldn’t have any of it, had he lived, history would have been different) It probably would have worked. They just needed to plan it that way.

  59. I’m w/ Phil on this one. ISS wasn’t the best use of the available funds. It was a good idea when it started out, but like so many good ideas these days, got caught up in bureaucratic red tape and went behind schedule and over budget. (I had a discussion w/ one of my coworkers yesterday that the feat of getting to the moon in the approx 8 years from JFK’s speech to when Apollo 11 landed would be unheard of today. We’re both engineers in a defense contractor, and are mired in red tape daily….)

    Sell the thing to the Hiltons for them to use as a space hotel and concentrate on getting back to the moon.

  60. Elmar_M

    Robert Bigelows Sundancer will hopefully be in orbit as well soon too. That one will be a truely commercial enterprise. Closest to a space hotel you will find in a long time. Their biggest problem is not building the space hotel but getting it there.

  61. Chalk it up to lack of public interest. We landed on the Moon. It was “Moon”umental (ok sorry!) and I think we should have kept going back! Overall the public just grows complacent. It’s sad for the enthusiasts that really get a kick out of everything “SPACE”.

    ISS is doing good on the long duration of micro-g effects on humans. That’s pretty important for missions to Mars.

    We really need to get back to the moon and I get giddy thinking of the day that we witness another moon landing. I just hope it’s the United States (what’s wrong with a little pride? :). Granted whoever makes the first steps since Apollo will have gained my utmost respect.

    The most important thing in all of this is public interest. People need to be into it and excited about it. I do my best to get my kids into it and when we watch launches on TV I really try to emphasize on how important all of this stuff really is. Hopefully it’ll rub off on them and they’ll take their turn at science.

    I’m merely a web/graphic designer but the one thing I have in common with spacecraft designers is that a lot of times, you have to go back to the drawing board! :)

  62. Elmar_M

    I am against going to the moon now, giddy or not. Space science is not a publicity stunt (or should not be anyway). We will want to return to the moon, but if we do that, we will want to be able to sustain our presence there. If we dont make that happen, then all we will have is another Apollo. Yes Apollo was great, but it was not what it should have been. In order to be able to sustain a presence on the moon, we need to be able to be able to get into orbit affordably first. Right now we cant even do that, or even less sustain a presence in orbit (well barely and that with huge financial efforts). We need to learn how to walk first before we can learn how to run.

  63. Flying sardines

    @ 34. Sushovan :

    Hey Phil, are you not covering the longest total solar eclipse of the century? (visible today in the Eastern Hemisphere)

    Seems not. :-(

    Nor does the BA seem at all interested in covering the Endeavour mission or the plumbing problems with the ISS’es blocked dunny – just when there’s a record thirteen folks in space. Pity. :-(

    I know its his blog & the BA can choose what to cover but some of us do like getting our news re: space and astronomy & Phil’s take on * all* that’s going on – & yes I’m disappointed these haven’t been discussed by him a bit more. I know your busy BA but still … Sigh. :-(

    @ 63 Elmar_M : We need to learn how to walk first before we can learn how to run.

    But we did learn! We took that one giant step … forty years ago. Have we forgotten how to walk? You take one step – and then you take another then another each time going further out. Until you’ve perfected walking and are running and growing and developing further. The Moon was one giant totteringstep, the next was mars then an asteroid then Mercury or maybe Ceres and some more asteroids. But instead of taking thos esteps and truily learning towalk then run, post-Apollo we’ve metaphorically fallen flat on our butts and cried and gone absolutely no further. That’s sad and lame and people looking back from a future perspective will wonder what the blazes was wrong with us.

    Hopefully they won’t be condemning us for throwing away our future and putting the Western democratic free world under a totalitarian Chinese Moon – and Mars and asteroids and thereby losing our childrens & /or grandchildrens options for liberty, pursuit happiness and the ability to have some control of their destiny. :-(

  64. Flying sardines

    (Continued -ran out of editin’ time ..Sigh.)

    Indeed, we’ ve metaphorically “walked” when it comes to space stations too – Skylab and Mir and the Salyuts – the International Space Station is basically just a larger version of those.

    I wonder how much more support the ISS might have had if it looked like the wheel shaped space station from Space Odyssey 2001 or Deep Space Nine. If it had been more ambitious, more imaginative, more different and innovative might it also have fired people up more perhaps?

    Still to lose it now would be a waste & I favour doing something smarter than just deorbiting it and burning it up. Boost it to a higher orbit, shield it, modify it, send it to L1 or L2 or whatever else but lets use it and not just waste the effort and money already committed, please!

    Oh & for pity’s sake NASA & Co give it a decent name – the whole thing that is & not just the modules! ISS is so bland and uninspiring besides being a merely description and not a proper name. The International Space Station is going to be a home for heroes and a part of history – clunky, dull, acronymns like ISS just don’t cut it. Call it ‘Harmony’, ‘Serenity’ or even “Colbert” but name it something! 😉

  65. Petrolonfire

    Oh & for pity’s sake NASA & Co give it a decent name – the whole thing that is & not just the modules! ISS is so bland and uninspiring … – clunky, dull, acronymns like ISS just don’t cut it. Call it ’Harmony’, ’Serenity’ or even “Colbert” but name it something!

    Do I recall someone ages ago here suggesting the name ‘Horton’ for it after the white elephant from Dr Suess? 😉

    Seems to me, the ISS has the fundamental problem of just being ..well boring.

    Everyone remembers the Apollo 11 Moon landing and where theywere that day – even its skeptics know and care about Neil Armstrong, Buzz and co but the ISS is just so … meh.
    Will anyone remember where they were – or care – when the ISS crew were up there fixing their blocked toilet? I doubt it. No pays any attention to it now let alone years from now.

    NASA needs public support for getting funding and getting on with things. The ISS is plain dull – having it burn up in the atmosphere would be about the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to it.

    What gets the publics attention? Reality TV and disasters – like Apollo 13 – boring when it was successful but such an adventure when it failed and lives were at risk.

    Hmm .. I know – lets hold the next ‘Biggests Loser” reality on the ISS then “accidentally” send them them all plummeting disasterously out the skies to a fiery end! 😉

    Its shallow but you know its true! 😉

  66. Scott

    Why can they not leave it in orbit and strip ‘er for parts for some other projects when opportunity knocks? Reuse and recycle the thing into other projects at the very least!

  67. llewelly

    ISS is doing good on the long duration of micro-g effects on humans. That’s pretty important for missions to Mars.

    Call back when an ISS citizen matches the record for days in microgravity set by Mir cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov (437.7 days). But what really matters is the ability to spend years of spaceflight outside the Van Allen belts.

    We really need to get back to the moon and I get giddy thinking of the day that we witness another moon landing.

    When Americans return to the Moon, the overwhelming majority of Americans – and much of the rest of the world – will think: “That was so 50 years ago.” (And it will have been at least that long.) It will not be inspiring to most people. Much the opposite. It will strengthen the impression that manned space flight has achieved almost nothing since the moon landings. When the landing occurs more than 10 years after G. W. Bush’s barely famous pronouncement – the public image of human spaceflight will be further damaged by the impression that the second set of Moon landings took longer to occur. It will be a PR debacle for American space flight.

    If another nation sends astronauts to the Moon – it will be a modest PR boost, if it is also a nation that holds feats of engineering in high esteem. (Like China. Not like America. )

  68. Flying sardines

    @ 68 llewelly :

    If another nation sends astronauts to the Moon – it will be a modest PR boost, if it is also a nation that holds feats of engineering in high esteem. (Like China. Not like America. )

    Don’t you mean ‘when’ not ‘if’…? (The way things are going.)

    Then looking those few years or decades further along as other nations – like China – continue to progress & establish space stations and Lunar bases and colonies on the Moon then maybe Mars and /or Near Earth Asteroids while the West continues to decline, barely bothering to look up as others take the space high “ground” until one day …

    Surprise! We wake up and see that China has its nukes and more in orbit. China says who gets to travel in Low Earth Orbit even. :-(

    Then if we’re not kow-towing very prettily and quickly to them, the People’s Republic of Crushing its peacefully protesting People under its “People’s Army” tank treads and incinerating their piled up corpses with their flame-throwers China quite literally has the power to smash us down and grind us to dust.

    Don’t think they would hesitate to do so .. Their leadership is a *lot* less squeamish about human lives and rights than we are.

    Nightmare scenario? Bad SF? I hope so – for all our sakes.

    I’m not the USA’s greatest fan but I sure would prefer the flawed representative democracy of the United States that pays at least *some* attention to Human rights and freedoms to have a controlling position in the world over the totalitarian one-party “communist” (now in name only) dictatorship of China.

    By surrendering the idea of exploring space – of progressing into and pioneering beyond what Carl Sagan termed the “Sacred Black” (‘Sacre Noir’ actually I think -in ‘Pale Blue Dot’ the US surrenders more than just its initiative and spirit – it also surrenders real power and influence, real global leadership along with the wealth of scientific and engineering knowledge and military & political capability. :-(

    If the USA gets to colonise the Moon & Space generally; I’m pretty sure our collective future will be a lot brighter than any of the alternatives – with the possible exception of a joint co-operative international effort. If China alone, OTOH, gets to control space – I fear we will all really regret it.

    PS. I’m an Australian NOT a (United States of) American. I do however more broadly consider myself a Westerner & I do value human life and human rights – which I do NOT think China does. I do remember the Tiananmin (spelling?) Square Massacre of 1989 and know a bit about how China has been treating its Tibetan and Uighur minorities. Brutal repression would be putting it too nicely. :-(

  69. Elmar_M

    “But we did learn! We took that one giant step … forty years ago. Have we forgotten how to walk? ”

    You missunderstood me. This giant leap was a great achievement, but it was a more or less exclusive event, with no follow up whatsoever. It would have been better to go ten years later and then bring an infrastructure that would have allowed us to build a moonbase and keep it runing. What we did was go there hop arround a bit and then leave for at least 50 yars because itwas way to expensive to return. That is a very, very bad way of doing it! Ther is no point in doing this all over again. We did it once to proof that we can. Next time we should do it better. Doing it better means that the mission architecture needs to be financially sustainable. This is impossible with the cost of space launches today.
    NASA sometimes seems to toy the notion that space flight is something exclusive and that it has to be expensive so only NASA can do it and noone else. Some kind of space county club mentality or something.
    Anyway, first goal has to be: Make it cheap to go to orbit, then make it cheap to go places from there.
    I am not an engineer, but to me this approach is more logical. So one would build a fleet of inexpensive RLVs, use those to first build a “half way” station in orbit. There you construct a lunar shuttle, which would be a space ship going from earth orbit to lunar orbit and back.
    So your astronauts go from the earth to the orbital station. There they switch to the lunar shuttle. That shuttle would go to lunar orbit and there would dock with a spacecraft that shuttley between lunar orbit and the lunar surface. Each craft would be built for a very specific purpose, thus be much simpler. All of them would be fully reusable.
    I imagine the lunar shuttle to get refueled at the earth space station whenever it arrives to pick up new personell for the moon base.
    One might want to make it nuclear powered since it will never land on earth or the moon. That way you dont need an oxidizer and can save quite a bit of mass that you need to bring to orbit, making the whole system even cheaper.
    I am not to sure about the potential fuel sources on the moon. So far they have still not found any water (for LOX and LH2), so one might have to bring fuel from earth in cargo transports. If we are lucky and finde some source on fuel on the moon, we might not need that anymore either.
    Anyway this is an architecture that would be much less expensive. Of course it would take longer.
    At the beginning of all this stands RLV- development. We need to get into orbit without throwing away half the spaceship.
    Also, having a really fully reusable spaceship that does not loose more than 50% of its parts on the way up and that makes space travel affordable to a larger part of the population, would be very exciting to a lot of people. After all lots of people like science fiction and spaceships in sciencefiction are fully reusable. So that would bring scifi closer to reality, which is something the public can be excited about if it is sold well.

  70. Flying sardines

    Before I discuss anything else I want to clarify my earlier post (# 69) :

    I think having the Chinese space program *alongside* an American or European or International one would be great – with them either as a partner with us or in friendly rivalry.

    I think, in retrospect, the Russian-American space race was a good thing in motivating both sides to push further into space and developing the capability to land on the Moon among other things. A new peaceful space race between America & the People’s Republic of China would similarly, I think, be a good thing goading both sides into pushing the envelope and achieving more than either nation alone may if just left to themselves.

    I’d even be happy to see China beat the US / West back to the Moon as long as the USA and Western nations weren’t too far behind them – maybe at most two or three years.

    What really worries me and makes me uncomfortable though, is the idea of having only China on the Moon and only China controlling space with the PRC having a huge gap and technological and politico-military superiority over us Westerners.

    China has a rich and interesting history and culture and most Chinese people I know (& I do know – & even lust after – quite a few 😉 ) are great individuals but I have an issue with their government which I do consider, to be honest, downright evil.

    Not because its Chinese but because its currently a totalitarian dictatorship – which is always a nasty, brutal, tyrannical form of government – whether that totalitarian State is located in and culturally inspired by Germany, the old Muslim Caliphate or China – or for that matter, the USA or Australia.

    I sincerely hope that this no longer becomes an issue in the future – that the Chinese People themselves change and reform their system of government to one that is .. Well, plain nicer. You know, one that doesn’t crush thousands of its own people under tanks and persecute a group for a style of exercise and lets everyone vote and have a say in running things if they want to whether their Party Helmsmen or not.

    I like to think competition – and even better co-operation – in space can make the world better. I like to hope that, for instance, an Iranian or Arab space program might inspire Israel to go into space too and then that seeing their dispute from the vantage of, say, the ISS (or Space Station ‘Harmony’, ‘Babylon-1’ or Colbert or whatever they might make peace more easily. (Yeah some hope I know!)

    Incidentally, it’d be great if we could get China to buy into the ISS too. Why not? :-)

    But a situation where only China – or really only one nation whichever it is – holds all the capability and territory and power strikes me as unbalanced and generally a bad thing. Especially if that country is a totalitarian brutal state that oppresses even its own people and has committed utterly sickening atrocities in Tibet and Xinjiang and would clearly like to commit those against Taiwan given half the chance. (Personally I’d like to see China accept that if Taiwan or Tibet or Xinjiang wants to go its own way then let ’em – China will still be more than big enough in every sense of the word! 😉 )

    So I’ve nothing against China being powerful or going into space *other* than that I especially dislike the idea of putting my fate or my children’s’ or their children’s in the hands of the current Chinese rulers or their ideological successors who I really don’t trust with anyone’s future.

    @ 70 Elmar : Sounds like a good plan. I’m with you. :-)

    Not sure where we disagree really. Unless I’m very much mistaken (always a possibility! 😉 )then my point and yours are both that we should have followed up after the Apollo program better.

    I guess you’re saying we should have gone to the Moon later where I think the time we went is fine..

    (Hey, when is it too early to do something really awesome that improves and adds knowledge & wonderment to everyone’s lives? Besides if the US hadn’t landed then Soviet Union wasn’t too far behind … 😉 )

    The failure to “walk” in those giant steps was not doing something major afterwards – colonising the Moon or going on to Mars or both.

    Cheaper reusable spacecraft bringing us closer to the world imagined by SF – good idea. That’s what the shuttle was meant to be, but really wasn’t – or not entirely anyhow.

    Space station -> lunar shuttle -> Lunar base =excellent idea. I even had a picture book aboard that as a toddler! I kid you not. I forget the title, author & everything – its long since disappeared but it had a small boy taking a fictionalised ride on that exact plan. Lift off in something like a Saturn V rocket, a space station stop over then a ferry to the Moon and ending with looking at red dot inthe lunar sky – Mars. 😉

  71. Flying sardines

    D’oh! I am overtired ..

    I even had a picture book *aboard* that as a toddler!

    make that “about” … & now I’m going to bed. 😉

  72. Just me


    It seems that you’re in the “go back to the moon” crowd. I honestly don’t understand the whole purpose of a moonbase. It seems like an incredibly expensive venture — far more expensive than the ISS, and I’m not sure what kind of return we could get in terms of science. The original motivation for going to the moon was to beat the Soviets in the space race. And that yielded a lot of collateral benefits for all of us. Apart from building an observatory on the far side of the moon, I really don’t see the benefit of an actual moon base, especially in terms of a launch platform for Mars and elsewhere, as is often argued. The moon is still in earth’s gravity well, so, we don’t get much fuel savings by launching from the moon. Oh, also, anything that’s to be launched from the moon must first be sent there. From Earth, so, add that launch cost to the launch from the moon, and the “savings” disappears, no? (forgive my Inconsistent capitalizations — my grammar cop is off-duty today). Plus, providing life-support for a moon colony/base would be incredibly expensive, as there is very little in the way of indigenous (right word??) resources on the moon that can be mined to support a base. So, life-support resources will also have to be periodically replenished from earth. Additional costs.

    Now, why not go straight to Mars? Skip the moon altogether! It won’t cost much more in terms of fuel to launch to Mars, and if we do it right, the transit time to Mars would be about six months. People have lived that long in Earth orbit, so there’s no reason they couldn’t survive that long on a trip to Mars. I like Zubrin’s plan to send a habitat unit/return vehicle two years before sending humans, so that by the time humans arrive on Mars, they’ll have a fully fueled, survivable habitat module ready and waiting for them. Granted, this is a gross oversimplification of the Mars plan, but I think Zubrin has the right idea.

    Now, I’m not a rocket scientist, so I’m sure there are many things I’m not taking into consideration, so I’m open to being “schooled” by you science-types, but my gut feeling (I’m like Stephen Colbert — I trust my gut more than, you know, “research”) says that going to the moon is an expensive, and possibly dangerous, diversion in the human colonization of space. Any thoughts?

  73. Gary Ansorge

    73 Just me:

    A lunar base with full time accommodation isn’t just about science value; it’s about industrialization and resource exploitation. Luna is a big hunk of rock, with all the construction materials we need to build solar power sats and space colonies. We don’t, in the long term, require LOX or H2 for such projects. Mass drivers work great in that environment(remember, no air resistance during launch), which is what Gerard O’Neille proposed in The High Frontier. 90% of the mass required for a power sat is available from lunar resources. The remaining 10% MIGHT have to be lifted from earth, unless we are able to build the complex control systems in situ on the moon.

    For all this, workers on Luna have 1/6th G to help maintain bone mass,etc. They’re right where they need to be to control tele operated robots(which is what we’d use for the actual vacuum construction process). Science is ONE rationale for return to Luna, but PROFIT is the reason we’ll stay, and with earths energy needs requiring us to invest over 500 billion dollars a year for new energy generation, even a fifth of that invested in lunar construction of power sats would be enough to keep the space ball rolling for the next several centuries.

    GAry 7

  74. Just me

    74. Gary Ansorge

    I hadn’t thought of mass drivers. Excellent point!

    Pardon my ignorance, but what exploitable resources are there on the moon? I’ve read lots about Mars (The Mars Trilogy and others), but know next to nothing about our nearest celestial neighbor. And could you or someone explain how power sats work, i.e. how the power gets to earth? I’ve heard something about microwave beams directed toward earth. Is that what you’re talking about?

  75. Flying sardines

    @ 75 Just me :

    Pardon my ignorance, but what exploitable resources are there on the moon?

    Here’s a list of five possibilities for you – just for starters :

    1. Helium three which could be a fuel of the future.

    2. Possibly water ice, possibly minerals – we may find that extracting ores from the Moon works cheaply and easily and, of course, won’t have the environmental or social issues we get on Earth. Uranium mining on the Moon, for instance, could help stop the worries about radioactive elements being launched from Earth, avoiding the sort of protests that Cassini for instance suffered with its RTG component. Maybe we could actually build such spacecraft and launch them from the Moon itself?

    3. The Moon also offers a low gee, hard vacuum environment which is could have its advantages for some industrial processes – and a wide range of temperatures. Ditto. The Moon would also be an ideal place for using solar power : long days, no clouds (or air) in the way, huge tracts of land available and some locations with permanent sunshine – polar craters.

    4. The opportunity to practice colonisation and artificial ecological sustainability techniques and learn how to create artificial biomes (think the “Biosphere II” experiment) more rigourously than on Earth and perhaps more accurately – for planetary environments than space stations but in a way that may be more ethically responsible than on Mars – *if* Mars has some life forms of its own.

    5. Dare I suggest tourism? No seriously, if places like Antartica and Mt Everest are becoming tourist sites of sorts (& they are) then why not the Moon too?

    Now all we need is to get the fungineers designing the Lunar theme park… 😉

    We’re whalers on the Moon,
    We carry our harpoons
    But there ain’t no whales
    So we sing tall tales
    And (? act like drunk baboons?)

    ‘Futurama’ Lunar epsiode (Ok I forget the last line there .. 😉 )

  76. Asimov Fan

    Add to the list above the ability for humans to actually fly under their own power! 8)

    Apparently, in the low lunar gravity with sufficent space to fly in and a pair of strapped on wings, Humans can run, jump, flap their arms and actually fly like birds. I’d love to see – & do – that. All we need is a large enough space on the Moon and! I kid you not. :-)

    I read about this possibility in at least one Isaac Asimov story. (Maybe more?) I think Arthur C. Clarke and a few other writers may have mentioned & used this idea too.

    Asimov also noted in a short story about the … umm .. romantic delights offered by low gravity – specifically for Mars but this could work (play?) better yet on the Moon! (Not in zero-gee though where Newton’s “every action has an equal & opposite reaction” law probably makes things more awkward.) In essence, just imagine holding your favourite girl (or guy) in your arms at one sixth or one sixteeneth gee..

    Not that this latter advantage would be a reason to go in itself – more an extra bonus but still… 😉

    Asimov’s low gee romance pleasures story by the way was titled “I’m In Marsport Without Hilda” & is included in several of his anthologies such as ‘Nine Tomorrows.’ (Pan, 1982.) Its a great story and one I’d heartily recomend being bright and funny and quite romantic and, esp. for Asimov, somewhat risque!

  77. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 76 Flying sardines

    “We’re whalers on the Moon,
    We carry our harpoons
    But there ain’t no whales
    So we sing tall tales
    And (? act like drunk baboons?)
    – ‘Futurama’ Lunar epsiode (Ok I forget the last line there .. )

    FYI: The last two lines of that mock sea shanty are :

    So we tell tall tales
    And sing our whaling tune.

    But I think I like your version better! 😉

  78. Wendy

    That would suck!!! I love the ISS. It’s exciting and humbling at the same time to watch it orbit overhead.

  79. Steve A

    The “outrage” people have over this 2016 plan just goes to show that for as many politicians there are that are ignorant of science, there are as many science people who aren’t as educated as they should be on the politics. The Universe Today piece was excellent, but it really shouldn’t have been needed. If people knew that until this year’s budget the plan was for 2015, not 2016, I think this would have been a non-issue. And that international partners and the US, as has been mentioned, are looking into what it would take to extend this into 2020. This wasn’t a secret. It’s been out there and reported on. You just have to go expand what you are reading.

    That even Phil was shocked is a bad sign. Phil, I know your voice is very influential. I think it would behoove you and your readers because you can sway readers and inform their views to be more on top of this kind of thing. It must be hard with your schedule, but still if you are going to weigh in, I think its only fair.

  80. Wayne Conrad

    In poker, betting a lot of money just because you’ve already put a lot of money in the pot–not because you’re holding good cards–is called “good money after bad.” It’s no better an idea in space than it is in cards.

  81. Andrew

    Space vechiles will split into launchers to get into orbit, and space vechiles to go somewhere.
    Look at the radiation pressure equation. Temp to the fourth power. Massive forces for uncontainable materials. You want to get somewhere – start spitting vast numbers of photons.

  82. pv

    I just watched the progress 36 dock with ISS. The anouncer made note that there were 4 russian ships docked for the first time ever. It would seem that the russians are taking over the station that the us taxpaers paid to have hauled up 250 miles and assembeled by us astronauts. The russians do some eva work but it seems like the heavy work is done by the us personel.It is a shame we never got to see 2 us shuttles docked up there at the same time. Ive seen alot of illustrations of it but it has never happened I guess there is just not enough parking on our side of the station.I think we should continue the shuttle till the next generation of space craft can get us up there without depending on the russians to decide when americans can go up and how many . They will have the monopoly on transportation to the station and any scientific break thurs made there.I think congress should look at the big picture and keep America on the high ground or at least at the same level as the other “partners” in this international program.

  83. Hi Space Cadets,
    My thoughts on this ISS contraption. It is the biggest “Compartmentalization” project ever! Nobody knows what this thing is for! Not the engineers, astraunauts, or its creators! Why? Because its true purpose has not dawn on it yet.
    Watch these upcoming events………..The “Rapture!” NWO previously set in place now enacted! Now NWO headquarters rule from ISS! If you do not want to be part of this senario, get yourself a good church, and build a great relationship with God!

    Your friend Ladd

  84. Cult of WiSkaro

    Kudos to Buffalodavid…..
    I seriously pity the little people of nasa.
    How could they possibly not see the obvious.

    Set aside this ISS waste for a few moments and seriously ponder…
    In all this time and mega-trills of money…squandered on
    conditioning Humans for Interplanetary Travel.

    The end result…Humans arriving on another Planet, entropic and weak and,
    this human represents planet earth?
    No…I’m sorry….I’m so very sorry.

    A Space Wheel is splendid and beautiful……and compliments the Blue Danube.


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