De-Orbit the ISS in 2016? Don’t Bet On It

by Nancy Atkinson on July 15, 2009

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

International Space Station. Credit: NASA

There’s been a fair amount of outcry this week regarding a quote in the Washington Post from International Space Station program manager Michael Suffredini that the ISS would be decommissioned, de-orbited and destroyed in 2016. Suffredini made that statement to the Augustine Commission, the presidential panel reviewing NASA’s future plans, at a hearing in June. But please don’t think ditching the space station is a done deal. 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. NASA spokesman Kelly Humphries told Universe Today that the heads of the participating space agencies recently reaffirmed their common interest in using the station “to its full capacity for a period that is meaningful for our stakeholders and its users.”

Additionally, Humphries said the international partners recently noted that as things stand now, a continuation of operations beyond 2015 wouldn’t be precluded by any significant technical challenges.

“NASA is working with the international partners to understand if there are any technical constraints to extending the life beyond 2016,” he said. “That’s the first step in confirming the belief that we don’t have any major technical concerns.”

The FY 2016 date was originally based on how long the station would be operational. That doesn’t take into account delays that have occurred in bringing various modules and hardware to orbit.

“Based on the projected design lifetime of the hardware that we have in orbit, the current International Space Station program baseline does have operations ending in fiscal year 2016, which is the end of calendar year 2015,” Humphries said. “However, there hasn’t been any policy decision made as to whether to continue or preclude any additional space station operations beyond 2016. And NASA hasn’t taken any action to preclude those operations.”

Humphries said that no one at NASA is going to speculate how long – or short – the station’s life might be. “NASA’s policy is not to make or allow any decision to be made that would cause the space station to be terminated on a particular date,” he said.

But as in all government sponsored space activities, funding is the biggest question mark. “The continued funding of the station is a decision that will be made by the leadership in the nations that are participating as partners in the endeavor,” Humphries said. However, he added, the heads of agencies did commit to work with their respective governments to assess whether or not they can support the station after 2015.

Suffredini simply laid out the course of action that would occur if agreements with the partnering nations were allowed to expire, which seems unlikely. As far as the funding, those details are up to the governments — and the taxpayers — of the participating nations. So if you have an opinion — one way or the other — make your voice be heard.

But what does Suffredini really think? As he told the Augustine Commission, “My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing.”

Sources: Washington Post, phone interview with Kelly Humphries


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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