In the realm of space exploration, all great endeavors eventually reach their conclusion, and the International Space Station (ISS) is no exception. After a remarkable service of nearly a quarter-century as a haven for humanity in low-Earth orbit, NASA is charting a course to gracefully retire the ISS as it approaches the twilight of its operational life.
Currently scheduled to conclude its mission in 2030, the ISS has been a collaborative effort involving NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, and the Russian space agency Roscosmos. However, diverging timelines have emerged, with Roscosmos committed only until 2028. The challenge lies in effectively decommissioning this 109-meter-wide space station, too large to be entirely disintegrated in Earth’s atmosphere during reentry.
To address this, NASA is developing a plan involving a dedicated spacecraft, colloquially termed the “US Deorbit Vehicle” (USDV), with an estimated budget of up to $1 billion. In September, NASA invited ideas from the US aerospace industry to construct the USDV, a spacecraft focused on the critical final deorbit activity.
Despite the ISS’s anticipated operational span, the retirement process is already a nuanced matter involving aerospace engineering and international diplomacy. The ISS, primarily a collaboration between the United States and Russia, supported by Canada, Japan, and Europe, represents a rare domain of ongoing cooperation between the two major space-faring nations.
Previously, NASA had considered leveraging Russian Progress spacecraft for the deorbiting maneuver, but recent geopolitical events and concerns about Russia’s space capabilities have prompted a shift in strategy. In response to the evolving situation, NASA is now pressing ahead with the development of an American deorbiting vehicle, reflecting a pragmatic approach to ensure the safe and controlled retirement of the ISS.
The USDV, expected to cost $1 billion in total, has garnered initial funding requests of $180 million for the fiscal year 2024. This move aligns with broader strategic goals, emphasizing the importance of continued US leadership in space. NASA Administrator Bill Nelson underscored the significance of this funding, not just for the ISS’s deorbiting but also in preparing for the seamless transition of low Earth orbit operations to commercial-owned platforms, fostering ongoing access, presence, and collaboration in space for research and technology development.
As the curtain falls on the ISS era, the responsibility for its deorbiting may technically involve five entities, but the United States is poised to take a leading role once again, ensuring a meticulous conclusion to this iconic space mission.
Last modified: November 25, 2023