How To Dispose of a Space Station


With the life of the International Space Station extended to at least 2020, we don’t have to think about its demise for awhile. But actually, NASA and the international partners do have to think about and plan ahead for how this huge 400-ton structure in space will one day be deorbited and disposed of. Friend and venerable space writer Leonard David has written an article about how NASA is starting to consider how they will organize and execute “dumping the huge facility into select, but remote, ocean waters in one fell swoop.” It ain’t gonna be easy, and that’s why thorough planning is a must. It might take a combination of vehicles (ESA’s ATV, Russian Progess) to send the ISS on a very safe and precise swan dive. Or, another possibility is that some of the modules could be re-used elsewhere.

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24 Replies to “How To Dispose of a Space Station”

  1. Don’t drop anywhere near Australia! How about in the middle of the Nevada desert, or to be fair, little bit and pieces provided by the all contributors who made it. Maybe the Russians would have their LEO disposal programme up and running by then?

    Seriously, my only alternative is to jettison it slowly away from the Earth, either placing it in orbit around the Sun, or perhaps between Earth and Mars. It was conditioned properly to last, in standby mode if you like, it could be an ideal way-station for emergencies or unforeseen circumstances. Crashing it to ocean just wastes all material that might be able to be used in the future.

    By one thing I’m dead serious about, Not in the southern hemisphere and certainly not near Australia, really becoming the general rubbish tip of space junk !

    I say. Look after the environment! Think of the fish!

    1. Seriously?

      ISS masses in at ~ 0.4 Gg.

      The largest oil platforms masses in at ~ 1 Gg, and the Gulf of Mexico alone had ~ 4000 gas and oil platforms as of 2006. All of them are adding to the “the general rubbish tip” of the oceans, because like a space station it costs a lot to remove them so it isn’t done. (Same ref.)

      Seems you are spitting out a 0.4 Gg fly (if anything survives reentry) and swallowing a ~ 100 000 larger elephant, just because the usual junk option is too crude for a glorified lab. But think of the fish!

  2. Would it be possible to attach a small booster and nudge it into a slow trip to lunar orbit? Just wondering, it could come in very useful there.

  3. Yes postman1 I hope they’re going to do that, or at least send it to a higher-altitude orbit for future use. There are some plans, even contracts, for attachment of an ion-thruster to the ISS in 2012:

    Hello to everybody on UT, from the Netherlands, this is my first post! (I’ve been following the universe’s news over here for about a year, it’s become my favorite website)

  4. Is there actually any reason why it can’t be parked in a higher orbit? If it’s going to have an ion thruster attached to it, surely it will be cheaper to ship enough propellant to shift it to a higher orbit than to crash it back to Earth. Not to mention that bits of it might come in handy later in case of emergency.

  5. I definitely think they should just keep it in higher orbit. Why throw more waste back down to earth? Besides, like the other poster mentioned, I’m sure it would be useful to re-use its parts some day.

  6. Why does this have to be disposed of anyway? Why can’t it be reused as part of a space hotel, or a commercial laboratory, or one of the options listed above? Seems like a gigantic waste of funds to de-orbit this venture. We spent so much of all our resources on this. For what? To turn it into the world’s most expensive meteor?!

  7. My ideal scenario would see this thing parked in a lagrangian point along with all the other space rubbish we have for use in future recycling endeavors. Dumping it into the ocean would definitely put me off the idea of building *another* space station in the future. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and if you’re really savvy, send it on it’s way to orbit Mars.

    1. I think the problem with that is that whatever you park in a stable L-point will eventually be gravitationally attracted and collect into a pile. Others may correct me on this but given a long enough time, things will collect into a pile analogous to the island of trash in the oceans.

  8. This is a sign of the future. The manned space program is in close up mode. There are only two shuttle flights left, and beyond that the ISS will depend on Soyuz launches. The ISS is now vulnerable to system failures which can’t be serviced, and within the decade it will be too cranky and old for safe use. The Space-X manned space stuff might go for a bit, but the Feds will not subsidize that forever. Manned space flight is horribly expensive, whether developed by a federal agency or a private company, and the Feds in the end have to pay the private company anyway. If these Space-X guys are smart they will switch their focus on com-sats and other programs. The Chinese might make a go of it until they run into the same reefs we have and decide manned space flight is an expensive stunt show, and eventually cancel their’s out.

    The future for astronaut careers looks a bit like this demotivator poster:

    Other posters on this website are funny, and brutal as well.


    1. Meanwhile, the commercial industry is interested in … commerce. Suborbital flight and orbital hotels are near, and people are willing to pay. No need to paint a bleaker picture than the current status which is – an all time high of manned activity!

      1. The top economic 1% of Americans held $7trillion 20 years ago, and now hold $40trillion. This has been a great vacuum cleaner job. Some of these people probably do have money to throw around at space tourism. That might be the case and be a growth industry until the suborbital shuttle craft (Spaceship 1 or 2) crashes and the bones of some mega-wealthy guys are being picked up over a 5 km^2 area amidst the smithereens. This stuff is dangerous, and rocket flight is not far from riding something which is a sort of large controlled explosion or a bomb. The other thing is that these mega-wealthy people have top buck lawyers as well. The first accident which kills off some major CEO of a big corporation could close the whole thing down —- their families and associates will have the lawyers to do so. Space tourism is probably a bit like the commercial dirigible industry in the 1920-37 time frame.

        The mega-wealthy might find later this century that Soylent Green is getting too expensive to throw money at space roller coaster rides.


      2. Not really.
        Wealthy people have died in plane accidents (even in the infancy of air travel); but that didn’t stop us from building or developing larger and more reliable planes…

        LC, have you switched your place today with Crumb?

    2. I’ve been looking at these posters since you posted the first link a couple articles ago. They are indeed funny – most of the photos are quality ones too! Thanks.

      I do agree with you about most manned ventures, especially the lunacy of a long-term manned Mars base. However, I feel human aspirations for adventure and the exotic create a market for space tourism, money and technology permitting.

      1. Quasy: The difference is that with air travel the actuarial tables are well known. With space tourism not so much (in fact no) statistics exists. So there is no insurance backing, there is then no legal structure for assessing acceptable risk. We have had 130 (I can’t remember the real number but this is about it) shuttle flights with 2 crashes. That is a 1/65 = .015 or a 1.5% failure rate. An airline company with that history would also become history fast. If the spaceship 2 crashes and it is found to be due to a technical oversight, or some procedural flaw you can bet the lawyers will be all over this like piranhas that pick the industry clean to the bone. I see this as this century’s version of the last century’s infatuation with dirigibles.

        UF: There needs to be some serious nonpartisan panel, composed of neither space enthusiasts nor the Robert Park anti-manned space types, which attempt an honest study of whether there is any future for manned space flight and colonization and the rest. I will confess that if there is some shot at making all of this work I would prefer that we not miss it. At the same time I think our world should not devote lots of resources into something which has no prospect. This is particularly given our rather dire troubles on our home planet. This includes private space efforts as well, which frankly amount to “Disneyland in orbit” for the very wealthy.


  9. I think most people would like to see the station get recycled, lets say the project directors go with that.

    What exactly is involved in moving the station to a GEO, lunar orbit or an L1 or L2 point?
    Can it even be done, I know the station gets orbit boosts from progress and ATV.

    What I would like to know is how this can be done and what it would cost?

  10. I’ve been asking about this for years. I’ve never gotten an answer. I’m glad someone is finally thinking about it. Several decades ago Buckminster Fuller said that every building that is going to be built should be designed with a plan for its demolition. I would have thought it was an obvious concern what to do with the ISS once its useful life is over. I hope it was, but it looks more like it wasn’t.

    I’m opposed to dumping it in the ocean. Just more pollution. And does the ISS use nuclear fuel? What toxics does it contain? Surely all those solar panels are loaded with arsenic.

    Fuller also said that pollution is just a resource out of place. I agree and we should consider what to do with this resource rather than put it out of place, -dispersed in our ocean. It’s a whole lot easier to deal with waste in one piece than when it’s in millions of pieces.

      1. “And does the ISS use nuclear fuel?”
        Yup. And it also hosts from time to time visitors from Mars. These little green devils are eating everything, that is why it’s so expensive to keep it up there…

  11. I say (1) boost it into a higher orbit and (2) stretch a highly reflective mylar banner from it (say, about 5 miles long) to make it easier to see from the ground when it’s not in shadow.

  12. If it is necessary to dispose it off, then should be in small pieces instead of just one unit.
    We can through off fuel pod/chamber and other parts containing nuclear material towards moon or asteriod belt. While remaining less dangerous parts can be dropped into ocean again in small pieces.
    Job is tough but we can find out a way to get it done.

  13. If the ISS is brought down, it will never be replaced. Never again will the nations of the world combine their efforts and invest 150 billions of their taxpayer´s to build and put such a facility into orbit, when the final result is nothing but a spectacular display of fireworks.

    The ISS s a great thing and it is great that there are people up there which have their eyes open and see what is happening on and to our world, but that vantage point is not a boon for every business.

    I am afraid, without the ISS manned spaceflight is over, and people´s horizon will again be confined to what they can see from the ground, from where the world seems to be so large and rich, anf from where you cannot perceive how tiny and vulnerable our planet is, and that its resources are very very limited.

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