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

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

14 Replies to “De-Orbit the ISS in 2016? Don’t Bet On It”

  1. “My opinion is it would be a travesty to de-orbit this thing.”

    If this thing was deorbited in 2016, it would make it the single biggest waste of money and resources in the history of the entire universe. Billions of dollars poured into it – for what? I don’t see too many research papers coming out of this thing. Are we actually learning anything from it that will be of any future use to NASA, apart from assembling things in space? Bah.

    The amount of cash poured into this thing would want to see it still orbiting in 3016.

  2. De Orbiting the I.S.S. would make the deaths of the Columbia Crew meaningless. If absolutely NOTHING else was done, it should be left in orbit as a memorial to the true sacrifice, not in dollars, but in lives, that were made to complete this ambitious undertaking.

    I still stand by my earlier suggestion to make this a space tourism destination. Whether we keep it in Orbit or set it in place at a Lagrangian Point I don’t care. But for the love of sanity *DO NOT THROW IT AWAY*.

  3. The Columbia accident was unrelated to the station.
    The ISS problem is two fold:
    1) The planned mission runs out in 2016 unless major changes are made. We cant be up there doing nothing.

    2) The original sections will be eighteen years old by then, which is older than Mir was. God spare life and hardware, she’ll still be showing her age (think of Hubble with its disintegrating insulation, failing computers, and weakening frame).

    Making new experiments and engineering solutions for longevity means we start spending money and spending it very soon…

    The ISS is a great achievement but lets not overstate what it is. On the space vehicle scale its a pop tent in the wilderness. You can only live in it for so long.
    The better plan is to replace these outposts regularly and send them up in as few launches as possible. You want to maximize science time and minimize construction work.

    I think what the ISS has taught us is the folly of having a one vehicle, crew centric, launch system. Its a lesson learned, but if you want a monument its better to build that on the ground.

  4. I’m going to make myself a few friends here … 😉

    “… the single biggest waste of money and resources in the history of the entire universe”: but that’s exactly what it is! Not being deorbited (which it will be anyways), just being there!
    The ISS has nothing whatsoever to do with science (except human biology in space). Experiments with spiders in micrograv are cool, but not at this price tag.
    You could have built 15+ LHCs or Hubbles with that money!
    For the price of each shuttle launch, you’d send a probe to Mars!

    Don’t get me wrong though, I’m just as fascinated by this stuff as everyone here, I watch Nasa TV as much as I can. But there’s just no point in this, it does not come for free, and it is much more politically motivated than anything else.
    If any of these manned programs (ISS, Moon or Mars) made any sense, there would be clear goals, these goals would have clear implications in terms of resources, technologies, vehicles, funding.
    This is not what happens.

    And most of all I’m sick to have ‘science’ be an excuse for this, when it actually cuts good science funding.

  5. How much do you know about what goes on to the space station? Do you think that hundreds, if not thousands, of people are employed on the project to do nothing? The space station is a test bed for basic research. Sure, there aren’t any final results out of the space station, but basic research is just testing out ideas to see if anything comes of it.

    Another big part of research on the space station is human factors. If we want to make the jump to Mars, its going to mean an extended stay in a micro gravity and nearly gravity free environment. The human body doesn’t take such activities too easily, and the space station is the ONLY way to find ways to survive such a trip. Even after a mere six months in space, astronauts can’t even walk in normal gravity, sometimes for days. How will this affect the first explorers of distant worlds?

    Here’s a link to all of the experiments being run during the current six month expedition:
    That’s a lot of stuff, and most of the work is being done by external payload developers, with NASA mostly just getting things up there. What exact projects are losing funding because of this?

    To say anything is wasted on the space station is short sighted. If you can’t even recognize the importance of the work being done up there, remember that this is one of the most successful international undertakings of all time. While there is still international tension on the project, we are all learning to respect each other more and more, and getting along on this little ball will only help us spread to others.

  6. Sorry, that was mostly a reply to Manu. My thoughts on the article are that when its done, it’ll be done. Laboratories run there course, do their work, and if they are no longer needed, they are shut down. It would be nice if we could keep useful bits of the space station up, but it does cost a chunk of change to keep that thing flying. If it can run past 2016, good, but if it is time to move on to a new project, so be it.

  7. @ fredcai: well, OK, I’ll add space technology to human space biology, but that’s the same thing: if we don’t send people to space, we don’t need human-rated space tech.

    Once again, I’m truly fascinated by what happens up there, but choices have to be made at a point.
    For almost all of my life I’ve been waiting to see what it looks like on Titan. Now I have to wait for 2035 to see it again???This is insane!
    It’s likely I’ll never see a giant planet’s cloudy layers from inside, either.
    I’d gladly trade all past, present and future manned missions for just one picture of that…

    Besides, I don’t believe “the future of the human race” is in space, in fact our future is nowhere but with and within ourselves. Time we stop running away from that and face it (and this has nothing to do with the money issue).

  8. Yeah, we should trash the ISS and stop all manned space flight.

    Alfter all, we ain’t learned nuthin’ from it.


    If it is to be retired, I say sell it to Virgin Galactic or another space tourism company.

  9. The ISS has been an orbiting white elephant. There has been little accomplished by it. The shuttle is being decommissioned and that will kill the ISS in the long haul. It also appears that another bigger white elephant is in the works as well — a lunar base.

  10. “The ISS has been an orbiting white elephant. There has been little accomplished by it.”

    The ISS is yet another “would have could have should have but wasn’t” projects, it really did have a lot of promise going into it, but they cut back so much from it that it ended up doing nothing.

    “It also appears that another bigger white elephant is in the works as well — a lunar base.”

    With the US going bankrupt that may or may not happen, for the US anyway. On the flipside, we should say hello to our Chinese Ubermeisters next time we look at the moon in the nightsky.

  11. I’m confused by what you guys expected from the space station. Can you really call the hundreds of experiments run a failure just because it doesn’t give you pretty pictures? This is the ONLY place where we can test microgravity’s effect on a system (I mean that in terms of an operational system, biological test system, and any other system) for an extended duration, and gaining that ability is a failure? Yes, it is expensive, and maybe it doesn’t get enough press for what does get carried out on board, but I think its meeting its requirements: an international laboratory in space.

    The fact that we even have one, that it has been running successfully for over 10 years is absolutely astonishing. How can you so callously toss off this accomplishment just because a satellite didn’t go to a moon you wanted to see? Pretty pictures versus research that makes our lives better? I like pretty pictures, but you have to admit that the research is more justifiable.

    I agree though, that the shuttle being decommissioned seems like its going to be a limiting factor. The main limitation will be that we will have no way of getting experiments back down to the ground with current launch vehicles. The shuttle transports a number of frozen samples, and while Soyuz is perfectly capable of carrying astronauts/cosmonauts, it doesn’t have the housing to bring back a large quantity of science. It’ll be interesting to see how they get around that.

  12. @Outcast: “It also appears that another bigger white elephant is in the works as well — a lunar base.”
    That moon and what it offers “may” just save our bacon here on earth.
    If per chance water was abundant and easily tapped, the moon would be ideal for future power generation systems (I’m thinking nuclear). Just beam the power to receiving stations on earth. And no waste disposal problems. Just thinking a few decades into the future.

  13. Unfortunately, the ISS is nothing but a glorified Skylab. I was against this project right from the start when President Reagan first advocated it back in the 1980s.

    NASA should have developed the Shuttle-C to heavy lift cargo for a Moon base.

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